In the United States we tend to associate bells both with emergen-cies and with such joyous occasions as weddings and Christmas celebrations. This association between bells and Christmas can be traced back to the Middle Ages, when Church officials began to use bells for worship and celebration. Medieval European bell customs, in turn, developed out of a wide array of beliefs and practices associated with bells in ancient times.
Bells in the Ancient World
People rang bells for many reasons in the ancient Mediterranean world, especially religious purposes. Jewish high priests hung tiny golden bells from the hems of their robes. The jingling bells repelled any evil spirits who might be lurking about the threshold of the temple. Some evidence suggests that the ancient Greeks also used bells in a number of religious rituals. The ancient Romans sounded bells on many occasions. They rang during civic ceremonies, chimed alongside other musical instruments during festivals and feasts, announced the beginning of religious rituals, publicized the opening of markets and public baths, and warned the people of fires and other emergencies. Evidence suggests that the Romans associated bells with the dead and believed bells could protect them against evil spirits.
As Christianity spread throughout Europe, Christian leaders slowly began to adapt bell-ringing traditions to Christian worship. Like the Romans, they used bells as a means of making public announcements. Since they wanted these announcements to carry over longer distances, they began casting large bells in addition to the smaller hand-held bells known since ancient times. They mounted these larger bells in high places and sounded them by the pulling of ropes or other devices. In early medieval times monasteries began ringing bells to announce the start of religious services. By the tenth century churches throughout Europe, from cathedrals to tiny rural chapels, were equipped with bells for the same purpose.
Like their predecessors in the ancient world, these church bells were credited with mysterious powers. For example, folklore hinted that bells possessed something akin to a life force, a personality, and a soul. Many legends throughout Europe told of bells ringing of their own accord to warn the public of some upcoming disaster. Other legends related stories of bells that refused to sound or that expressed their unhappiness with human actions in other ways. Numerous legends spread word of talking bells. According to folk belief, some bells sounded in tones that seemed to repeat a certain phrase, often praising their makers or lamenting an unjust act. Other bells refused to be silenced, continuing to ring on Christmas Eve even though buried underground or sunk in deep waters. People also commonly believed that church bells had the power to protect them from harm. Church bells were rung to ward off thunderstorms, frighten away witches, and halt outbreaks of disease. Folk belief sug-gested that the dead ascended to heaven on the sound of ringing church bells.
In addition to these folk beliefs and legends, Roman Catholic custom called for the consecration of bells used for church services. This mark of respect reflected the fact that bells served quite literally as the voice of the church building in which they were installed. Bells were prepared for this ceremony, commonly known as baptizing a bell, by draping them in white cloth and festooning them with flowers. During these services the bells were anointed, incensed, and officially named in the presence of their godparents, usually the donors. Some old legends tell of bells that refused to sound until baptized. People equated the sound of ringing bells with the voice of a person in prayer. Therefore, they frequently inscribed brief prayers on the bells so that the bell might offer the prayer to heaven. Other popular bell inscriptions state the bell’s purpose or powers, for example, “I call the living, I bewail the dead, I break up storms.”
Church bells were most commonly used for worship and celebra-tion. The big bells adopted by churches during the Middle Ages rang to call parishioners to religious services. They also chimed at certain points during the service so that those standing outside or those at home and at work could join in the prayers. In addition, churches tolled their bells to announce local deaths (see DEVIL’S KNELL). Many churches had four or five bells. The more important the occasion, the more bells rang to honor it. A high mass warranted three bells, for example. On the principal feast days, such as Easter and Christmas, four or five bells pealed together to celebrate the joyous occasion. In medieval ENGLAND Christmas bell ringing began in Advent, with a loud clang coming on the first Sunday in Advent to alert parish-ioners that they had entered the Advent season. Many of these practices were discontinued by Protestant churches after the Reformation, however.
Bells and Christmas
Today fewer churches carry out the old Christmas tradition of bell ringing, and the folklore surrounding bells has been largely forgotten. Nevertheless, the public imagination still links bells with Christmas. A number of well-known Christmas poems and Christmas Carols depict pealing or jingling bells as joyful emblems of the holiday. In addition, bells appear as symbols of the holiday on many Christmas decorations. Finally, representatives of charitable causes seeking donations at Christmas time often announce their presence on street corners by ringing hand-held bells. (See also SALVATION ARMY KETTLES.)