The sound of sleigh bells, church bells and chimes always evoke warm memories of Christmas and winter for me and whether they jingle, jangle or chime, their sound is distinctive and conjures up feelings of peace and joy within .
Long ago, as early as the Middle Ages, bells were part of everyday life and a principal form of communication. Villagers would hear them toll for good times but also in bad times. They rang out warnings but also communicated the time of day, important announcements, the beginning and end of various events, the arrival of important visitors and special celebrations.
The sleigh bells worn by horses was designed to warn pedestrians of the approaching vehicle. In Victorian times, it was very fashionable to go carol singing with small handbells to play the tune of the carol and sometimes there would only be the bells and no singing!
Like many of the traditions around Christmas, bells were first used in pagan winter festivals with the purpose of protecting 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. In the Anglican and Catholic churches, the church day starts at sunset, so any service after that is the first service of the day. Since the service on Christmas Eve takes place after sunset, it is traditionally the first service of Christmas day and the bells are rung to signal the start of the service.
Particularly distinctive is the sound of carillon bells. A carillon is an extraordinary musical instrument composed of at least 23 carillon bells arranged in chromatic sequence, tuned as to produce harmony when they are sounded together.
Unlike the system of ringing mathematical variations invented by the English, where bells are swung in change ringing, Carillon bells are bolted to steel or wooden beams and do not move in performance. Instead, the clappers, which are connected by a direct mechanical linkage to the keys of a keyboard, move to strike the bell and the carillon’s mechanical playing action is like that of the piano.
The world’s greatest number of carillons are in Belgium, The Netherlands and northern France and Germany, but carillon bells can be heard throughout North America, in places where people gather such as churches or on school campuses or from famous towers such as Canada’s Peace Tower on Parliament Hill.
It is no simple task to cast church bells – any errors in the process will ruin the bell’s sound. A specially designed foundry furnace has to be fired to the right temperature (more than 2000 degrees) until red-hot molten bronze can flow into bell-shaped molds. A bell’s weight and shape, determine its note and the quality of its tone and unlike other musical instruments, will not go out of tune over time.
The bells produced in Passau, Germany are renowned throughout the world and the casting of a new bell is a fascinating process that always draws crowds of spectators. Bells over 300 years old sound as they did when they left their maker’s hands. A bell’s greatest enemies are fire, which can destroy the bell, and air pollution, which dissolves the bell metal, thus affecting the tuning.
Jingle Bells was the first song to be broadcast from space in December 1965 by astronauts Tom Stafford and Wally Schirra. They smuggled a harmonica and sleigh bells onto the Gemini 6 space craft when they boarded and once in space, played and sang the song to mission control.
By the way, the song was first called “One Horse Open Sleigh” and was originally published as a Thanksgiving song. It became associated with Christmas because of the ‘snowy’ lyrics and because many choirs in the late 1800s chose to sing it as part of their Christmas repertoire. The title was changed and republished as such in 1889 and it has stuck. That’s something to share over Christmas dinner!