Devil's Knell

Devil's Knell

Devil's Funeral, Old Lad's Passing Bell

According to an old European custom, local deaths were announced by the ringing of church bells. In England this sound was known as a "death knell." Since old English and Irish folk beliefs asserted that the Devil died when Jesus was born, some towns developed a tradition of ringing the church bells near midnight on Christmas Eve to announce the Devil's demise. In England the custom was called tolling or ringing "the Devil's knell" or "the Old Lad's Passing Bell." In Ireland the Christmas Eve bell ringing became known as the "Devil's Funeral."

Although religious officials forbade this custom after the Reformation, the practice survived in the English town of Dewsbury in Yorkshire. The Dewsbury tradition dates back to the mid-thirteenth century. It was briefly discontinued in the early 1800s and then reinstated. Local officials interrupted the practice again in 1940, since during World War II bell ringing was forbidden except as an announcement of invasion. The inhabitants of Dewsbury revived their bell-ringing tradition in 1948. According to custom, a team of local residents rings a certain bell in the Dewsbury parish church once for every year that has passed since Christ's birth. The bell ringing begins at eleven p.m. on Christmas Eve and is timed to end at midnight. The custom prevents the Devil from infiltrating the parish during the coming year, according to folk beliefs.

An old legend explains the history of the Devil's knell bell and hints at another origin for the Christmas Eve bell-ringing custom. Long ago a local man of means, named Thomas de Soothill, murdered a young man in his service. As penance for his crime he donated a large bell to the Dewsbury church. He requested that the bell toll every year on Christmas Eve as a reminder of his sin. Until recently, the Dewsbury bell was called "Black Tom of Soothill" in reference to this legend.

Further Reading

Foley, Daniel J. Christmas the World Over. Philadelphia, Pa.: Chilton Books, 1963. Hole, Christina. British Calendar Customs. London, England: Hutchinson and Company, 1976. Howard, Alexander. Endless Cavalcade. London, England: Arthur Baker, 1964. Spicer, Dorothy Gladys. Yearbook of English Festivals. 1954. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1993.
Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2003
References in periodicals archive ?
In Dewsbury they have a spooky tradition dating back to Medieval times called the Devil's Knell.
However, the Devil's Knell will be tolled 2005 times on Saturday night and is timed to finish at midnight.