Traditions of Christmas Bells
Bells, especially Church Bells, have traditionally been associated with Christmas for a long time. In the Anglican and Catholic churches, the church day starts at sunset, so any service after that is the first service of the day. So a service on Christmas Eve after sunset is traditionally the first service of Christmas day! In churches that have a Bell or Bells, They are often rung to signal the start of this service.
In some churches in the UK, it is traditional that the largest bell in the church is rung four times in the hour before midnight and then at midnight all the bells are rung in celebration.
In the Catholic Church, Christmas and Easter are the only times that Mass is allowed to be held at Midnight. It's traditional that at both midnight Masses, the church and altar bells too in many cases are rung while the Priest says the "Gloria" (Gloria in excelsis Deo).
Having a Mass at Midnight at Christmas dates back to the early church, when it was believed that Jesus was born at midnight, although there has never been any proof of this! A lot of Churches have midnight services on Christmas Eve, although not every church will have a mass or communion as part of the service.
In many Catholic countries such as France, Spain and Italy, the midnight mass service is very important and everyone tries to go to a service.
In Victorian times, it was very fashionable to go carol singing with small handbells to play the tune of the carol. Sometimes there would only be the bells and no singing! Handbell ringing is still popular today.
Perhaps the most famous bells at Christmas now are the ones in the song 'Jingle Bells'. However, the song was first called "One Horse Open Sleigh" and was originally published, in the USA, in September 1857 as a Thanksgiving song and NOT a Christmas one! But it soon became associated with Christmas because of the 'snowy' lyrics and many choirs were singing it at Christmas in the 1860s and 1870s. It was first recorded in 1889. Often only the first verse (and chorus) are now sung. The other verses are about driving the 'one horse open sleigh' rather fast and crashing it!
Jingle Bells was also the first song to be broadcast from space in December 1965 when the astronauts Tom Stafford and Wally Schirra said they had spotted a sleigh in space! They then took out a harmonica and sleigh bells which they had smuggled onto the Gemini 6 space craft and played and sang the song to mission control.
Jingle Bells was written by James Lord Pierpont (1822–1893) and the original version had some slightly different words and a slightly different tune for the chorus than are used today. There is some debate as to where it was written. Some people claim it was written in 1850 Medford, Massachusetts; while other people claim it was written nearer 1875 when James Lord Pierpoint lived in Savannah, Georgia.