I didn’t grow up in a particularly religious household and that was in contrast to the time spent during my informative years in a private boarding school that very much focused on the Christian faith. I do remember, however, setting off as a family to midnight mass on Christmas eve which I can confidently say was the only church-based event we ever attended as a family outside of the usual marriage and funerals.
One thing I distinctly remember about that visit, aside from the excitement of presents in the morning, was the church bells ringing out into the cold dark night. The experience was quite exciting for an 8-year-old who would normally be tucked away in bed, what I do remember distinctly, was the sound of the bells.
What do Church Bells Symbolise at Christmas?
Bells, particularly Church Bells, have a long history of being associated with Christmas and were originally used to symbolize the arrival of Christmas time and the birth of Christ. In the Anglican and Catholic Churches, the day begins at sunset, so a service held after sunset on Christmas Eve is considered the first service of the day. To mark the start of this service, church bells are often rung to remind people it’s time to make their way to the church.
In the UK, it’s traditional practice to ring the largest bell in the church four times in the hour leading up to midnight, followed by the ringing of the rest of the bells at midnight. Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve is a significant tradition in the Catholic Church and is only allowed to take place on this day and on Easter. During the Mass, the church and altar bells are rung as the Priest says the “Gloria.”
The practice of having a Midnight Mass on Christmas dates back to the early church and the belief that Jesus was born at midnight. In Catholic countries such as France, Spain, and Italy, the midnight Mass is an important event and is attended by many. This article gets really deep into the full history of bells and the Catholic faith.
Bells in Victorian Times
In Victorian times, it was popular to go out carol singing in the lead-up to Christmas with small handbells. The idea was to use them to play the tunes of the carols. Handbell ringing is still a popular tradition today although my experience tells me this is something that is less frequent than it may have been in the past.
Jingle Bells is still one of the top 10 carols we enjoy at Christmas today. Although it was originally published as “One Horse Open Sleigh” as a Thanksgiving song in 1857, its popularity as a Christmas song grew in the mid-1800s due to its festive based lyrics. It was first recorded in 1889 and is now only sung in its first verse and chorus.
Jingle Bells was also the first song to be broadcast from space when astronauts Tom Stafford and Wally Schirra both played and sang the song, using miniature bells and a harmonica in 1965. You can read the full interesting story of the first song to be played in space by these two astronauts as they pranked NASA and made history at the same time. Lyrics for Jingle Bells can be found here.
You might be thinking that a ‘sleigh bell’ is directly related to Christmas but you’d be wrong. Sleigh bells were fitted to horses centuries ago to warn pedestrians of the approach. As you can imagine, a horse and cart are tricky to stop in a hurry! Sleigh bells are also known as ‘jingle bells’ which is the connection to the famous carol we metnioned above.