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Learn all about the origin of Christmas bells and how bells play a part in our Christmas traditions.
How Did the Christmas Bell Tradition Start?
Bells. When we think of bells, we think of the grand, resonating objects that toll on the hour, locked in a tall building. Whether it be in a church, clock-tower, or only reserved for the movie screen, chiming bells have imagery closely associated with Christmas. The custom of Christmas bells, just like everything, has a deep history trailing back centuries.
Who would’ve thought? Actually, you can answer that- it isn’t rhetorical. Everyone knew that. They’re bells, for God’s sake.
So, anyway, before I get any more existential, for your consideration: The Middle Ages.
You know- the plague, people chucking feces out onto the streets, general discontent and a whole lot of angry people being angry for the sake of being angry.
There were also bells. Surprisingly. God, I’m on a roll.
Bells have been a symbol in the religious world for quite some time, chiming in churches and hailed by priests and other clergymen. St. Patrick has a bit of history with bells, as well. Somehow.
St. Patrick went on a mission to Emerald Island in the 5th century and gathered other Irish missionaries by ringing a bell. Whether or not this actually led to the use of bells in relation to religion, I honestly cannot tell you, but my man had a bell.
Later, the bell became a sacred religious practice for the teachings of God. Irish missionaries continued to spread this practice and it later spread west.
Jewish high priests hung small, gold bells on their robes. The bells were used to repel evil spirits inside of the temple. The idea that bells keep away evil has found its roots in Roman and Greek culture as well, further cementing the bell’s influence in faith and the mystical.
Christian leaders began to use bells during church services when Christianity spread into Europe. They also used bells to make public announcements. From this point, the iconic image of a bell being rung from a rope, chiming out over a town was birthed into the public’s conscience.
The Magic of Christmas Bells
European people believed that Christmas bells had mysterious powers. Bells were known to have a life force, a personality, and a soul.
Yes, of course, Janice the silver bell over there has a bucket-load of commitment issues. You should hear what Henry and Matthias, the copper ones downtown, have to say about her. A real piece of work, I tell you. Her ringing has such a whiny inflection, don’t you think?
Apparently, the people believed the bells could speak, further pushing my hopes for a reality show comprised of a cast of bells.
At times, they were told to simply refuse to ring, or they would refuse to stop ringing. On Christmas Eve, the Christmas bells would supposedly continue to ring even if they were dismantled and buried.
My reality show pitch doesn’t sound too far-fetched now, does it?
Okay, yes, admittedly, it still does. But I’d totally watch a love epic between star-crossed lover bells whose affair is thwarted by the scheming of their bell parents.
People believed that the bells would protect them from disaster. Church bells also kept away witches and thunderstorms.
Also, they believed that the dead went to heaven at the sound of church bells ringing, a theme seen in media throughout history- the sound of bells is seen as a resolute, final sound. A concrete. It seems fitting, I suppose, to believe that as people drift away, the ringing of bells conclude their stint as humans.
Christmas Bell Customs
Romans compared the ringing of the bells to the voice of the church. Church bells were used for worship and celebration.
Romans “baptized” bells by draping them in white cloth and covering them with flowers. Legends say that bells refused to ring until they were baptized.
They thought that the ringing of bells was the sound of prayer. People prayed to bells because they believed that the bells would offer their prayers to heaven.
In the middle ages, large bells rang by churches were used to call parishioners to religious services. They also claimed that people outside of the church were welcome to join in worship.
The ringing of church bells announced local deaths.
Churches used to have up to 5 bells. On more important occasions like Easter or Christmas, the churches would ring all of the bells. On less important happenings, they would ring 2 or 3.
The Slow Decline of Christmas Bells
Many of the Christmas bell customs were stopped by Protestant churches after the Reformation. Now, fewer churches use Christmas bells because the folklore of Christmas bells has died out.
Although Christmas bell folklore has stopped, Christmas carols still incorporate the ringing of church bells.
Today, Christmas bells appear on many decorations.
Who. Would’ve. Thought. Wow. The intrigue. The revelation.
One type of popular bell is a sleigh bell or jingle bells.
They were worn by horses to warn citizens of the horse crossing. Horses couldn’t be guaranteed to stop before crashing into a pedestrian, so the bells warned people to get outta Dodge before they got a few new skeletal accessories in the form of hoof prints.
They were put on horses by ancient Egyptians and had a distinctive jingling sound.
Also, jingle bells were worn by the rich to represent wealth and importance. Jingle bells were also used to keep away evil spirits, as previously mentioned.
Christmas Bells in Songs
Christmas bells appear in many different Christmas carols, such as the following!
“Jingle Bells” – James Pierpont Lord
“Jingle Bells” is a beloved Christmas song everywhere. The song was written by James Pierpont Lord in 1857.
“Jingle Bells” actually didn’t start out as a Christmas song, but a Thanksgiving song named “One Horse Open Sleigh”, about horse-drawn sleigh races during Thanksgiving.
“Silver Bells” Jay Livingston & Ray Evans
“Silver Bells” was written by Ray Evans and Jay Livingston in 1951. It was written for a movie by Bob Hope, The Lemon Drop Kid, and was originally named “Tinkle Bells”.
Over the years, it has had many remakes and is about the gentle ringing of bells during Christmas time.
If you love singing Christmas songs, go grab a free printable Christmas lyrics songbook you can use for Christmas caroling while ringing those Christmas bells!
There you have it! I hope you learned some fascinating facts about the origin of Christmas bells.