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Ring Those Christmas Bells
by Bob Brooke


Silver bells, jingle bells, sleigh bells, church bells—all help to bring cheer and merriment to holiday celebrations today. But the tradition of ringing bells at the onslaught of winter goes back centuries when people rang bells to ward off evil spirits who they thought would bring bad fortune and disease during the winter months.

Bells, especially church bells, have traditionally been associated with Christmas for a long time. In the Anglican and Catholic churches. The church day starts at sunset, so any service after that is the first service of the day. So a service on Christmas Eve after sunset is traditionally the first service of Christmas day, and churches that have bells often ring them to signal the start of this service.

In some churches in the United Kingdom, it’s traditional that the largest bell in the church be rung four times in the hour before midnight and then at midnight all the bells are rung in celebration. It’s impossible to imagine Christmas without hearing or thinking of the many different bells heard throughout the season.

The History of Bells
Shaped like cups, the earliest bells needed to be struck to make a sound. Perhaps it all began when someone hit a copper cup with a wooden stirrer or spoon. Later, this evolved into purposely made bells with internal clappers.

The Assyrians, Babylonians, Egyptians, and Sumerians soon discovered that attaching small bells to the harnesses of camels, horses, and mules could alert people walking along the roads of an approaching driver.

It wasn’t until the 4th or 5th century that large cast bells began to appear in Europe. Bronze bells would be hung in church towers and rung to call villagers to services. Traditionally, bells sounded on Christmas Eve to announce the start of the holiday service. Churches also rung bells to announce births, marriages, and funerals.

During the Middle Ages, bells became a popular form of communication. Usually, the largest building in the city was the church and within the church was a bell. This bell would be ringing for a variety of reasons but each reason centered around communication. Bells would be used to communicate the time of day, the arrival of important persons, important announcements, the beginning and end of various events, and they would also be used to announce special celebrations.

Like many of the traditions around Christmas, people first rang bells during pagan winter festivals to protect the people of the city from evil spirits. As Christianity gained influence the use of bells changed from a pagan purpose to a Christian one. The infamous St. Patrick often rang bells to signify the beginning and end of his lessons.

Another smaller form of bell, called a “crotal bell,” or more commonly a “jingle bell,” appeared in England in the 13th century. Craftsmen first made these by bending a flower-shaped piece of sheet-metal into a ball containing a solid metal sphere or rod that "jingled" when shook. Other craftsmen made these bells from two small sheets of metal molded into cup shapes which they soldered together.

Soon, knights started attaching crotal bells to their horses. In the 16th and 17th century, gold- and silver-plated bells engraved with coats of arms were presented to soldiers as awards. In the 18th century, wagon drivers in England and Wales started putting jingle bells on horses pulling their vehicles.

In 1510, the first set of carillon bells was introduced by a jester performing outside a Flanders town hall. Foundries in the Low Countries continued to develop the carillon bells until they emerged as a full-fledged tuned musical instrument in 1644, the first of which was placed in a Dutch wine tower. Churches quickly adopted carillons to use for their Christmas celebrations.

By the 19th century, these horse bells were no longer just practical. In England, they became associated with Christmas festivities including snowy pleasure rides on decorated sleighs pulled by handsome horses wearing polished bells. At this time, jingle bells became known as "sleigh bells." Another big part of the Victorian Christmas season was caroling, and it became trendy for carolers to carry small cup-shaped handbells with them. Eventually, foundries developed tuned sets of handbells so that carolers, bands, and church musicians could play recognizable songs on the bells without singing.

Around 1810, William Barton launched a company in East Hampton, Connecticut, to produce sleigh bells and handbells in the United States. He generously taught the trade to others so that East Hampton became known as "Belltown" or "Jingletown." It was reported that East Hampton produced about 14,000 bells in 1839, but by 1850, thanks to a new stamping process, the town was churning out nearly 3 million sleigh bells.

Sleigh bells were such iconic Christmas items by the 1850s that they became central to seasonal poems and songs. In 1857, American songwriter James Lord Pierpont wrote "One Horse Open Sleigh"―more commonly known as "Jingle Bells"―which remains one of the most popular Christmas songs in history.

During the Civil War, American writer Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote the poem "Christmas Bells" to express his dismay about the war contrasting with carols of "peace on Earth, goodwill to men." His poem was set to music for the 1872 carol, "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day."

Bell choirs first imported tuned handbells to the United States around the turn of the 20th century. In 1914, Ukrainian composer Mykola Leontovych and lyricist Peter J. Wilhousky wrote "Carol of the Bells."

Collecting Christmas Bells
There are so many variations and items containing Christmas bells that it’s difficult to know where to start a collection. In any case, it’s probably better to specialize in one category.

In 20th-century America, bells became an important part of Christmas celebrations and décor. Manufacturers made ornamental bells to hang on Christmas trees and bell-shaped Christmas lights. Porcelain companies like Lladro, Napco, and Lefton produced ceramic figural bells shaped like angels, carolers, or other Christmas symbols.

Other manufacturers produced a variety of bell-shaped tree ornaments. Those made of blown glass were popular in the 1940s and 1950s. Many makers of Christmas ornaments issue porcelain annual bells in December of each year.

Bells have also been a popular motif for Christmas jewelry. Brooches and pendants are particularly collectible.

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