The sound of Christmas bells ringing through the air is one of the most iconic sounds of the holiday season. Whether they’re jingling on a Christmas tree, “ringing” out in festive carols, or ringing in the New Year, Christmas bells are intricately woven into many beloved holiday traditions.
But where did these symbolic bells originate? Read on to learn all about the history of Christmas bells.
Origins in Europe
The earliest predecessors of Christmas bells date back to around 400 AD in Europe, where they first appeared in early Christian churches and monasteries.
Hanging metal bells in church towers began as a way to call worshipers to prayer and announce the start of religious ceremonies. These early bells were made of cast metal, usually forged by local artisans, and used to mark important events like funerals, weddings, and religious holidays.
Church bells eventually rang out from town centers across Europe, giving a rhythm to daily life. Townspeople came to rely on the bells to mark time and alert them to fires, storms, and other news. The bells were considered so important that many were given individual names and thought to have protective powers over the communities who heard their peals.
A smaller version of the Christmas bell, known as the jingle bell, emerged in Europe in the 1700s. These were small metal bells that jingled and tinkled when moved, often attached to harnesses of horses or the collars of pets. The name “jingle bell” dates back to an early 19th century poem referencing the sound of bells fastened to horses as they trotted through the snow.
In 1857, James Lord Pierpont cemented the jingle bell’s affiliation with Christmas when he wrote the beloved carol “Jingle Bells.” The iconic song, originally titled “One Horse Open Sleigh,” describes dashing through the snow in a sleigh with bells ringing merrily. Thanks to its instant popularity, jingle bells became forever associated with Christmas festivities and winter fun.
Spread to the New World
Along with Christmas customs like decorating trees, European immigrants brought along bell-ringing traditions when they came to the American colonies in the 1600s. English and Dutch settlers hung small bells on their properties to scare away evil spirits and protect their livestock. Bells of all kinds were prominently used in early American churches and town halls to regulate daily life.
But Christmas bells became especially popular in New England. Sleighs outfitted with bells were an essential form of winter transportation, and the joyful ringing of bells through snow-covered villages featured heavily in early American Christmas stories. The merry jingle of bells evoked nostalgia for old-fashioned Christmases and quickly assimilated into new holiday traditions.
History of Christmas Bells as Decorations
By the 1800s, small bells had made their way from horses and churches onto Christmas trees and holiday displays as treasured decorations. Affordable bell trinkets became a signature Christmas purchase. Department stores capitalized on the public’s appetite for bells by creating elaborate Christmas bell-themed window displays, holiday mail orders, and catalogs filled with bell decor.
Antique Christmas bells from the late 1800s can still be found today, recognizable by their delicately curved metal, gently tapered tips, and carefully punched holes from which they once hung on Christmas trees and wreaths. These mass-produced bells drove home the association between ringing bells and Christmas cheer that remains to this day.
Christmas Bell Traditions
Beyond tree ornaments, bells continue to factor into many Christmas customs:
- Carolers ring handbells and sing popular carols like “Carol of the Bells” and “Ring Christmas Bells.”
- Bells decorate wreaths, garlands, stockings, and table centerpieces.
- Santa attaches bells to his sleigh and the toes of elves’ shoes.
- Fundraisers employ bell ringers with red buckets soliciting holiday donations.
- Bells top iconic decorative Christmas objects like nutcrackers.
- Bells signify announcement, celebration and community in annual tree lighting ceremonies.
- On New Year’s Eve, bells ring out at midnight to welcome the new year.
The History Lives On
Today, many historic bell-making companies that rose up during the 1800s Christmas bell boom remain in operation, like Bevin Brothers Manufacturing in Connecticut. Their time-honored manufacturing processes churn out bells that look and sound nearly identical to those first jingle bells centuries ago.
According to Bevin Brothers, they’re also the last company in America that produces nothing but bells!
Christmas bell nostalgia also lives on through antiques, family heirlooms, museum replicas, and even popular poems like Edgar Guest’s “Christmas Bells” written in the early 1900s. The seasonal poem pays homage to church bells that “ring out the message sweet and clear/That Christmas time is here.”
So as you hear Christmas bells ringing out this holiday season – as a song, ornament, or carillon – remember that sound has echoed through the ages.
Bell traditions have their origins many centuries ago, in European churches, early New England sleighs, and Victorian Christmas tree trimmings. Though their forms have evolved, bells retain their magical ability to create an aura of Christmas nostalgia and yuletide joy whenever they ring.
What will be the next chapter in the history of Christmas bells? That’s yet to be seen, but the good news is that you get to help write the story!
How do YOU use Christmas bells to brighten up the holidays? Tell us all about it!
Did you know that the song, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” has ties to the Civil War? Check out the video below to learn more: