Why Bells at Christmas?

Bells are a familiar symbol of the Christmas season.  From sugar cookies to holiday decorations, the recognizable shape resonates the joy of Christmas.  For handbell and handchime ensembles, no season is busier as eager listeners revel in their festive sounds.

The use of bells dates back to pagan times when they were used to ward off evil spirits.  However, through the centuries, they have become closely associated with the Christian church. It was St. Patrick who initially used bells in the 5th century to gather people together in order to preach the Word of God.  Irish missionaries continued the practice around the globe and by the 8th century, bells were closely associated with the Church.

Bells have multiple uses as their ringing reverberates various messages across the land:  to call a gathering; to announce a festival; to warn of danger; to celebrate the living; to pause in our daily activities to pray; to remember a significant occurrence; and to mourn those we have lost to name a few. At Christmas, bells ring to announce the birth of Christ and His presence in the world!

One of the most famous examples of taking this glorious symbol and using it to ring a message so true is the poet, Henry Wordsworth Longfellow (1807 – 1882), who penned his famous poem, Christmas Bells, during the American Civil War.

Christmas Bells

I Heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime,
A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men!