Large church bell against a clear blue sky

The History of Bells

The History of Bells The history of bells is a diverse one, and bell chimes have become iconic for the holiday season. Bells have been used all over the world for diverse purposes from musical enjoyment to funeral rites and ceremonies. The sound of ringing bells can evoke all sorts of emotions and memories. Often we hear their beautiful chimes during calls to worship or recall the sweet resonance that emanates from a hand bell choir playing our favorite Christmas hymn. Have you ever wondered  about the history or origin of bells?

In ancient times, bells were considered a musical instrument of the gods; the sound carried the will of the gods, provided peace and happiness, cleared minds and exiled malevolent spirits. The Bible mentions bells often, specifically in the story of Moses. The use of bells in Christian worship can be traced back to the dinner bells in the Old Testament.

Ancient Bells

The earliest unearthed bells are pottery bells from Neolithic China. Pagan bells were often rung in the fall and winter to deter evil spirits during the long, dark nights. Bells were inexpensive then, and many people could afford to own them. Worldwide Palace and temple bells are traditional in Eastern cultures and religions. Bells were rung to announce significant events such as danger, births, deaths, public notices, celebrations, etc. They jingle during the Havdalah ceremony as spice boxes are shaken to release the sweet scents.

Bells are also associated with the passage of time, and clock or bell towers are still used today, including the famously reliable Big Ben in London.

Contemporary Christmas Season

In the Western world, bells currently play the most significant role during the Christmas season. Ringing bells to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ aligns beautifully with all the joyful images related to Christmas. For example, bells are commonly heard around Christmas and in conjunction with Christian services. Bells are also used to issue in ceremonial events and are enjoyed as musical instruments. Bells are also seen throughout the Christmas season – wrapping paper and wreaths are adorned with bells, and it’s impossible to walk into a large department store without passing a bell ringer. Holiday Songs About Bells Some of the most popular holiday songs have “bell” in their titles: “Jingle Bells,” “Silver Bells,” “Sleigh Bells,” “Sleigh Ride,” “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”, and “Carol of the Bells”.

Santa and Bells

The bells on Santa’s sleigh signal the arrival of Old St. Nick, and children listen intently to hear the bells that indicate Santa is on his way. Rudolph isn’t the only thing guiding Santa every Christmas Eve.  

Examples of Contemporary Use of Bells

Call to Prayer and Worship Many traditional churches ring bells from towers three times a day summoning the faithful to pray. Also, many religions ring bells to call the faithful to worship, signaling the start of a service of worship. Sanctus Bells Roman Catholic, Anglican, Methodist and some Lutheran churches use Sanctus Bells. These bells are either a small hand bell or set of bells which are rung before the consecration of the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ and are rung again when the consecrated elements are presented to the congregation. When you hear bells ringing this holiday season, recall the rich history of this noble and beautiful instrument. You may also recall those famous words from Zuzu Bailey in the holiday classic, “It’s a Wonderful Life”: Every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings.