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Christmas Bells Traditions & History

Published September 24, 2021
Christmas Bells Traditions & History

Today, Christmas bells are considered one of the main symbols of this holiday.

They are rung at churches on Christmas Eve, featured on greeting cards, elf costumes, Santa’s sleigh, and wreaths.

But most of these traditions are relatively young.

Bells have existed since the third millennium BC and first appeared in China.

In Asian culture, they were used by the nobles and in religious rituals.

Later, Germanic and Nordic pagans rang bells during winter solstice festivals.

Bells have been mentioned in the Bible numerous times, but they were never seen as a symbol of Christmas.

The tradition of ringing bells on Christmas Eve appeared in Ireland in the fifth century.

But it wasn’t until the end of the Middle Ages that it became observed across all Europe.

During the 19th century, bells acquired more applications than church services.

Then, during the Victorian Era, people started using bells for house decoration, and children were ringing bells when going caroling.

The core reason for the popularity of bells as a Christmas symbol were cultural references, such as infamous carols “Jingle Bells” and “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.”

To this day, bells are featured in nearly every holiday song or movie.

Bell Symbolism

Bells have been used in celebrations since pagan times. Long before Christianity appeared, people rang bells during winter solstice festivals to ward off evil spirits. The sound of bells was seen as protective rather than as jolly.

In other cultures, bells were seen as a musical instrument of the gods or royalty. In Ancient Egypt, Hindu, and Buddhism, bells were always used in religious rituals.

When bells first appeared in 2000 BC in China, they were only available for the nobles and symbolized wealth and power.

However, when bells started spreading across Asia, people began using them to convey information and attract attention.

Saint Patrick, the Father of Christmas Bells

But what about the tradition of ringing bells at Christmas? Bells were commonly mentioned in the Bible, especially in the story of Moses.

For example, Exodus 28:35 states: “The sound of the bells will be heard when he enters the Holy Place before the Lord and when he comes out.”

However, the Bible never stated that bells should be rung on Christmas Eve or other occasions in the church.

Historians believe the custom of ringing bells on Christmas Eve was started by Saint Patrick, who was a Romano-British Christian Bishop living in the fifth century in Ireland.

However, Saint Patrick was never formally canonized, as he lived in times when canonization laws in the Catholic church didn’t yet exist.

Historical evidence suggests that Saint Patrick used to ring the church bell on Christmas Eve to attract the attention of as many people as possible, inviting them to join the mass.

So, like in Ancient Asia, bells served as means of announcing an event.

After people gathered at church, Saint Patrick would share biblical teachings with the public.

For this reason, bells became associated with the word of the Bible, and churches started ringing them at other religious occasions, such as Easter.

Why did Saint Patrick ring the bells on Christmas Eve rather than on Christmas Day, you may wonder? In the catholic church, the day starts at sunset, so the first mass of the day happens at night.

In many regions, people celebrate Christ’s birth at night and attend a Midnight Mass. So, the bells announced Jesus’ birth and the beginning of celebrations.

Read more about Christmas Tradition: christmas celebration, chrismons, mistletoe, yule log, and christmas xmas.

Christmas Bells in Middle Ages

Up until the late Middle Ages, people only observed the tradition of ringing bells on Christmas Eve in Ireland and Britain.

However, the Archbishop of York has ordered all priests in England to order bells and toll them at certain times at the start of the eighth century.

After Irish missionaries started traveling to the west and east, people in other countries adopted the tradition, too.

During the Middle Ages, bells became an essential part of the Christmas service. The tone and sequence of ringing were often used to convey details regarding a service or celebration.

Apart from Christmas, bells were also used at funerals, weddings, and other significant dates, and their ringing differed depending on the occasion.

A popular medieval superstition alleged that bells could ring on their own. For example, people residing close to Canterbury Cathedral claimed they heard the bells ring themselves when Thomas Becket was murdered.

During the Reformation that started in the 16th century and ended the Middle Ages, many churches were desecrated and bells removed. Overall, this period was challenging for Christmas, as it was widely banned.

But after the Reformation failed at the start of the 17th century, churches started hanging bells back.

Furthermore, the bells became even larger and more beautiful than ever before, thanks to technological developments.

Christmas Bells in Victorian Era

Although Irish missionaries influenced the spread of the Christmas bell tradition outside of Ireland, Queen Victoria truly popularized them in the world.

By the way, she’s accountable for the popularization of other Christmas traditions, too, such as Christmas tree decoration.

During the Victorian Era, the use of bells expanded outside of churches. People would go caroling holding small bells, filling the streets with cheerful noise indicating the start of the holiday season.

Bells in the Victorian Era also started to be commonly associated with the passage of time.

For example, the famous Big Ben Great Bell, which weighs over 13 tons, was installed during Queen Victoria’s reign in 1843. Interestingly, the English word “clock” is derived from the medieval Latin word for bell, “clogga.”

Jingle Bells

Today, Christmas bells can be seen not solely in churches.

Starting as a way to announce a Christmas mass, bells have become the real symbol of Christmas and are now featured on elf costumes, Christmas tree ornaments, garlands, and wreaths. But the inspiration for most of these bell uses is Santa’s sleigh bells.

Sleigh bells are meant to warn people about Santa Claus’ arrival. The image of sleigh bells was created and popularized during the Victorian Era by a song each of us knows, Jingle Bells.

The song was written by James Lord Pierpont, a New England-born musician, in 1857, only a few years after Big Ben’s construction was complete.

It was initially published under the name “The One-Horse Open Sleigh.” Today, the song is one of the best-known American songs ever written.

Perhaps, you already know the lyrics: “Dashing through the snow In a one-horse open sleigh O’er the fields we go Laughing all the way Bells on bob tail ring Making spirits bright…”

The song had such an astonishing success that Pierpont was voted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, and the image of Santa riding a sleigh with bells was immortalized in our imagination.

Fun fact: “Jingle Bells” was the first song to be broadcasted from space, which tells a lot about its significance for culture.

Funnily enough, despite the influence “Jingle Bells” had on Christmas traditions and bell popularization, Pierpont himself wasn’t an example of a religious family man.

Instead, Pierpont had several wives, was a Confederacy supporter, and overall used to be a true rebel. But these facts don’t belittle his achievement.

A century later, in 1957, a song with a similar name was published by Bobby Helm: “Jingle Bell Rock.”

This cheerful jingle has instantly become a new Christmas anthem, but such a success wouldn’t be possible without the original “The One-Horse Open Sleigh.”

Bell Chrismon

Bells are also often seen on Chrismons, a type of Christmas tree ornaments. Frances Kipps Spenser invented Chrismons in 1957 to remind Christians of the real meaning of Christmas.

These ornaments feature traditional Christian symbols, such as Chi-Rho, crosses, stars, fish, and bells. They’re always made in white and gold colors.

The Bell Chrismon represents the word of God. This symbolism stems from the fifth century when Saint Patrick used to teach the Bible to the people gathering at church after he rang the bell.

The Bell Chrismon can also be viewed as a reminder that God should have the first priority in the lives of Christians.

Christmas Bells in Culture

“Jingle Bells” may be the most famous mention of bells in culture, but it’s far from being the only one. After the jingle’s success, mentions of bells in Christmas songs have become extremely common.

So, a Christmas carol called “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” by American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was written at about the same time, in 1863.

Another popular carol featuring mentions of Christmas bells is “Carol of the Bells,” written in 1914 by Peter J. Wilhousky, and an American poet and composer of Ukrainian origin.

The carol lyrics state that bells announce the arrival of Christmas and the beginning of celebrations to all people, bringing cheer and throwing care away.

Andy William’s “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” also pays tribute to “Jingle Bells.”

Of course, Christmas bells can also be seen in visual culture.

For example, you can easily find bells in any Christmas movie, and some even feature the symbol in the name, such as “Christmas Bells Are Ringing,” introduced in 2018.

Image credit: Pixabay

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