Symbols and Meanings of Christmas: Bells

Each day between December 1-25, we will look at one of the traditional symbols of Christmas, what these symbols mean and how they tell the Christmas story of our Savior’s birth.

Bells

Christmas joy naturally overflows into music. But when did they become part of traditional Christmas celebrations? Of all our Christmas symbols, the bells have experienced the fewest changes. Church bells, which have gladdened the hearts of people throughout the ages, are said to have became associated with the Christian Church because of St. Patrick. According to tradition, Patrick, a missionary to the Emerald Island in the 5th century, used it to gather the Irish people together for the teaching and preaching of God’s Word. With time, the bell came to be associated with the Lord’s work and to symbolize something sacred. Others say church bells started earlier and contribute the use of bells in church to an Italian bishop named Paulinus of Nola.

Within time, the ringing of church bells began to signal the time, and many communities depended on the bells in order to attend weddings, funerals or other services at the proper hour. Additionally, in some cases, the sequence of tones and the number of bells rung would indicate several details about a service or feast that was about to begin. Another interesting fact is the word “clock” comes from a Medieval Latin word “clocca” which means “bell.”

Priestly bells

We can find the use of bells as part of worship even in the Old Testament. Here, we find that bells were used and sewn onto the priestly garments. Exodus 28:34 provides the description: “a golden bell and a pomegranate, a golden bell and a pomegranate, around the hem of the robe.” The purpose of these bells were so when the priest went into the Holy of Holies, the people outside would hear them as the priest moved around to perform his duties. If they stopped jingling, they assumed the priest had died and they would pull him out by a rope that was tied around him.

Christmas bells

But what about the bells we find in our Christmas traditions? Bells have long had an close association with Christian churches. In many churches today, their ringing can still be heard every Sunday, and throughout the rest of the year for various religious celebrations – one of the most significant of course is Christmas. It comes as no surprise then that bells are a familiar symbol during the holiday season. They can be found on Christmas cards, in holiday decorations, and in many Christmas pageants. Christmas bells are featured prominently in religious and secular traditions throughout history and are used to announce arrivals of people and holidays, events, and other special celebrations. There are several kinds of Christmas bells used during this special holiday, including church bells, sleigh bells, and hand bells, and each has a special meaning and history.

Church Bells

The use of bells in churches dates back to 400 AD when an Italian bishop named Paulinus of Nola introduced bells as part of Catholic church services. In 604 AD, Pope Sabinian officially sanctioned the ringing of church bells during worship. Specifically, Pope Sabinian introduced the custom of ringing church bells during the celebration of the Eucharist and to announce times of daily prayer called the canonical hours. By the early Middle Ages, church bells were common in Europe. Most churches observing a midnight Christmas service ring the bells at midnight. Believed to be the time of Christ’s birth, Christmas Eve services often start at midnight signaled by the ringing of the church bells.

Sleigh Bells

Another popular Christmas bell is the sleigh bell. This type of bell was designed to be worn by horses as a warning to any pedestrians. This holiday bell was made popular by the Christmas song Jingle Bells

Jingle Bells

Perhaps the most famous bells at Christmas now are the ones in the song ‘Jingle Bells’. However, the song was first called “One Horse Open Sleigh” and was originally published, in the USA, in September 1857 as a Thanksgiving song and NOT a Christmas one! But it soon became associated with Christmas because of the ‘snowy’ lyrics and many choirs were singing it at Christmas in the 1860s and 1870s. It was first recorded in 1889. Often only the first verse (and chorus) are now sung. The other verses are about driving the ‘one horse open sleigh’ rather fast and crashing it!

Jingle Bells was also the first song to be broadcast from space in December 1965 when the astronauts Tom Stafford and Wally Schirra said they had spotted a sleigh in space! They then took out a harmonica and sleigh bells which they had smuggled onto the Gemini 6 space craft and played and sang the song to mission control.

Jingle Bells was written by James Lord Pierpont (1822–1893) and the original version had some slightly different words and a slightly different tune for the chorus than are used today. There is some debate as to where it was written. Some people claim it was written in 1850 Medford, Massachusetts; while other people claim it was written nearer 1875 when James Lord Pierpoint lived in Savannah, Georgia.

Handbells

The sound of handheld bells has been used for centuries as part of ceremonies and announcements, such as a town crier delivering the daily news. In Victorian times, it was very fashionable to go carol singing with small hand bells to play the tune of the carol. Sometimes there would only be the bells and no singing! Hand bell ringing is still popular today. Handbell choirs ring out Christmas carols and songs in a spectacular musical celebration of the season.

Let the Bells Ring in Celebration

Surely Christmas is one of the greatest and most joyous of all season. And, as in Ireland during the time of St. Patrick, the bell still symbolizes the Lord’s work. Let us remember that God’s greatest act in all of history began when he stepped into time as a man for the purpose of redeeming us. Let the bells ring in celebration!

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