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In the United States we tend to associate bells both with emergencies 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.

Church Bells

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.

Bell Lore

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 suggested that the dead ascended to heaven on the sound of ringing church bells.

Bell Customs

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 celebration. 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 parishioners 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.) Encyclopedia of Christmas

Further Reading

Auld, William Muir. Christmas Traditions. 1931. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1992. Bigelow, A. L. "Bells." In New Catholic Encyclopedia. Volume 2. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1967. Del Re, Gerard, and Patricia Del Re. The Christmas Almanack. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1979. Hottes, Alfred Carl. 1001 Christmas Facts and Fancies. 1946. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990. Leach, Maria, ed. Funk and Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythol-ogy, and Legend. New York: Harper and Row, 1984. Metford, J. C. J. Dictionary of Christian Lore and Legend. London, England: Thames and Hudson, 1983. Price, Percival. Bells and Man. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1983.
Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2003


Before the advent of television, radio, wristwatches and loudspeakers, church bells served European towns and villages as a kind of public announcement system. From the Middle Ages onward, bells rang to announce births, deaths, weddings, funerals, communal work projects, and holidays. They also pealed to warn of fires, floods, and disease. Folk belief attributed special powers to the sound of tolling bells. Many thought, for example, that the sonorous tones could ward off witches, tame thunderstorms, and aid departed souls on their journey to heaven.

In addition to these civic uses religious officials developed their own schedule of church-related bell ringing. Small bells chimed at certain parts of the mass, the Roman Catholic religious service surrounding the celebration of the Eucharist. These bells announced the start of certain prayers, such as the Sanctus and the Angelus, so that parishioners who could not get to church could still join in these important devotions. A somewhat larger bell rang to announce daily prayer services, such as vespers and compline (evening prayer services). Two bells pealed to call parishioners to daily mass. A high mass warranted three bells. Four or five bells boomed in celebration of the church's holiest feast days, such as Easter and Christmas.

Lenten and Easter Bell-Ringing Customs

In medieval times church bells tolled on Shrove Tuesday reminding people of their duty to confess their sins to a priest before Lent, which began on the following day. In England, the Reformation, a sixteenthcentury religious reform movement, reduced the importance of the pre-Lenten confession. The bell-ringing custom remained, however, although people reinterpreted its meaning. They began to hear the clanging bells as a reminder to use up all their butter, milk, and eggs before the start of Lent (see also Fasting). The English found that the quickest way to consume these foodstuffs was to make and eat pancakes. Hence they referred to the Shrove Tuesday bell as the "pancake bell" and to Shrove Tuesday as "Pancake Day." (See also Shrovetide.)

In some places bell ringers attempted to ring the bells in a subdued manner throughout Lent. This change in style reminded parishioners of the sober spirit of Lent (see also Repentance). As far back as the eighth century Roman Catholic custom called for the silencing or "stilling" of bells at the start of the Easter Triduum. Beginning on the evening of Maundy Thursday, the harsh cracks of wooden clappers replaced singing church bells. In some places clock tower bells, too, fell silent during these days. This unnatural stillness provoked many questions from curious children. In some Catholic countries of Europe, parents explained that the bells had flown off to Rome to visit the pope. In rural Germany and Austria the silencing of the bell towers inspired boys to bang sticks together as they raced through the streets calling out the time and singing Easter songs.

The English developed their own Good Friday bell-ringing customs. In some towns church bells remained silent on Good Friday. In others, only the bell possessing the lowest tone would be rung for church services, or the bells would be muffled in some way. In still others a single bell tolled at three in the afternoon, announcing the death of Christ. In Ayot St. Peter, in Hertfordshire, bell ringers sound a "death knell" at three p.m. on Good Friday. These traditional death announcements broadcast the age and sex of the deceased by ringing nine times for a man, six for a woman, and three for a child, followed by an additional number of rings representing the person's age. Thus, on Good Friday, the bells announce Jesus' death by tolling nine times, pausing, and then tolling thirty-three times.

All across Europe the sound of church bells glorifies the air on Easter Sunday. In France folk tradition identified the returning bells as Easter gift bringers, crediting them with delivery of the Easter eggs that all good children received on Easter morning.

Further Reading

Bigelow, A. L. "Bells." In New Catholic Encyclopedia. Volume 2. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1967. Coleman, Satis N. Bells, Their History, Legends, Making, and Uses. 1928. Reprint. Detroit, MI: Tower Books/Gale, 1971. Hole, Christina. Easter and Its Customs. New York: M. Barrows and Company, 1961. Lord, Priscilla Sawyer, and Daniel J. Foley. Easter Garland. 1963. Reprint. Detroit, MI: Omnigraphics, 1999. Tyack, George S. A Book about Bells. 1898. Reprint. Detroit, MI: Omnigraphics, 1991.
Encyclopedia of Easter, Carnival, and Lent, 1st ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2002
References in classic literature ?
'And always so?' inquired the Goblin of the Bell. 'Have you never done us wrong in words?'
'Never done us foul, and false, and wicked wrong, in words?' pursued the Goblin of the Bell.
'Who puts into the mouth of Time, or of its servants,' said the Goblin of the Bell, 'a cry of lamentation for days which have had their trial and their failure, and have left deep traces of it which the blind may see--a cry that only serves the present time, by showing men how much it needs their help when any ears can listen to regrets for such a past--who does this, does a wrong.
'Who hears us echo the dull vermin of the earth: the Putters Down of crushed and broken natures, formed to be raised up higher than such maggots of the time can crawl or can conceive,' pursued the Goblin of the Bell; 'who does so, does us wrong.
"Often in the middle of the night Bell would wake me up," said Thomas Sanders, the father of Georgie.
The second pupil who became a factor--a very considerable factor--in Bell's career was a fifteen-year-old girl named Mabel Hubbard, who had lost her hearing, and consequently her speech, through an attack of scarlet-fever when a baby.
Hubbard first became aware of Bell's inventive efforts one evening when Bell was visiting at his home in Cambridge.
Later, Bell ventured to confide to Hubbard his wild dream of sending speech over an electric wire, but Hubbard laughed him to scorn.
They now let him go on alone; and as he went, his breast was filled more and more with the forest solitude; but he still heard the little bell with which the others were so satisfied, and now and then, when the wind blew, he could also hear the people singing who were sitting at tea where the confectioner had his tent; but the deep sound of the bell rose louder; it was almost as if an organ were accompanying it, and the tones came from the left hand, the side where the heart is placed.
But the poor child that had been confirmed was quite ashamed; he looked at his wooden shoes, pulled at the short sleeves of his jacket, and said that he was afraid he could not walk so fast; besides, he thought that the bell must be looked for to the right; for that was the place where all sorts of beautiful things were to be found.
"I must and will find the bell," said he, "even if I am obliged to go to the end of the world."
He thought the bell sounded from the depths of these still lakes; but then he remarked again that the tone proceeded not from there, but farther off, from out the depths of the forest.