Bells have long held a place in the traditions of Christmas, for a joyous peal of church bells was always used to herald good news. And hand-bells, an attractive smaller substitute, are still often used as a pleasing accompaniment to human voices at Christmas.

In Heaven the Bells are Ringing, the Christmas carol tells us (Ding Dong, Merrily on High). And bells never seem out of place on Yuletide cards, among festive decorations or in Christmas songs. While some of these bells can be very large (up to a legendary 300 tons) let’s begin our celebration with a much smaller version: sleigh bells. These get their cheerful collective sound using a small, loose ball within the light metal of the bell, rather than needing the clapper or hammer demanded by larger bells.

Sleigh bells are also known as Jingle Bells, due to the song of the same name. Though this is nowadays regarded as a Christmas song, One Horse Open Sleigh, its original title, was actually written in 1857 for the American celebration of Thanksgiving. There are several verses, telling of a young man’s increasingly intoxicated attempts to court a lady-friend in a sleigh ride.

And though we tend to think of the word jingle as a descriptive word, some students believe that it’s a command, telling the bells to jingle as a warning to others of on-coming traffic.

Homage was paid to this traditional song in the Bobby Helms rockabilly single, Jingle Bell Rock (1957), with a British cover version by Max Bygraves, who later had a minor hit with the pleasant Bells of Avignon in 1961.

The clean-sounding tinkle of Silver Bells, containing the lyric “It’s Christmas Time in the City” first came to British ears in the classic Bob Hope film The Lemon Drop Kid (1951), although the initial recorded version was by Bing Crosby with Carol Richards (Decca, 1950). Inspired by a tiny bell on the office desk used by the composers, Jay Livingston and Ray Evans, the title reputedly began life as Tinkle Bells – until one of their wives pointed out that this phrase could have a double meaning. With cover versions including those by Engelbert Humperdinck, Kiri Te Kanawa
and Olivia Newton-John, the song first reached the charts in Britain in 2009, when Sir Terry Wogan and Aled Jones dueted for charity.

While The Bells of St. Mary’s has no original connection with Christmas (and actually refers to ‘red leaves’ of autumn in the lyric) this song, inspired by a visit in 1917 by composers Emmett Adams and Douglas Furber to a church in Southampton, was revived in 1945 for the Hollywood film of the same name, starring Ingrid Bergman and the ubiquitous Bing Crosby. This cinematic offering happened to include a section concerning a Christmas pageant, with the result that both film and song have come to be associated with the festive season. Covers include versions by Ted Heath and his Orchestra, Vera Lynn and even a group of musical mice in an episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

The Three Bells is another track I associate with Christmas, mainly because Brian Poole and The Tremeloes covered this song in December 1965, after theyd included a creditable a cappella version in their stage act. Based on a French song successfully recorded by Edith Piaf and Les Compagnons de la Chanson in 1952, English lyrics by Bert Reisfeld record three stages in the life of the fictitious Jimmy Brown: birth, marriage and death (he was apparently childless). In fact, the song is sometimes known as The Jimmy Brown Song or Little Jimmy Brown, adhering to the public’s liking for songs with names in the title. Cover versions include Nana Mouskouri, Daniel O’Donnell and Elaine Paige, plus a humorous lampoon by The Barron Knights in 1978: All The Chapel Lead Was Missing.

While the profusion of Christmas compilation albums gives the impression that Christmas singles have abounded down the years, this was not necessarily true. In 1976, Ring Out, Solstice Bells from eccentric, folk-influenced rockers Jethro Tull, peaked at number 28 in the charts, among very few other high-profile British festive offerings (American Johnny Mathis held the top spot with When a Child is Born). This raucous Tull track is more pagan than Christian. Although the celebration is leaning in that direction in any case, with a supermarket trolley loaded with wine and beer forming an apt image for the way 21st century revellers celebrate the season.

So not all Christmas Bell songs started life as Christmas songs. Another example is Carol of the Bells. This is actually based on a Ukrainian folk chant celebrating that country’s pre-Christian New Year, which happened to fall around April, and spoke of swallows returning to the household as a sign of good luck. Once the Julian calendar was adopted, New Year moved to January, and the song along with it. Performed at Christmas around the world, the English lyrics also have an alternative version, Ring Christmas Bells with Nativity-based wording.

And they’re not all happy songs, either.

I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day, a Christmas carol based on the 1863 poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (The American poet of‘Hiawatha’ fame) describes how Longfellow hears ironic mocking tones in the peal of Christmas bells. His wife had recently died, and his son had been badly injured in the hated Civil War, which is hardly ‘peace on earth!

The poet admittedly rallies in the last verse, offering ‘The wrong shall fail, the right prevail… good will to men!

There are memorable songs about non-Yuletide bells, too. An example being Wedding Bells in 1981 by Godley and Creme, one half of 10CC. While the peal of bells is generally associated with rejoicing, some songs can have a sting in the tail, as with the well-known nursery song, Oranges and Lemons, a vocal directory of the bells of several churches around London, which has various versions. The associated singing game concludes with ‘here comes the chopper, to chop off your head! Which is a lyrical connection to King Henry VIII’s marital tendencies.

Comparable rhymes can be found for other parts of England. The Bells of Rhymney, first recorded by American folkie Pete Seeger, from words by poet Idris Davies, laments a Welsh coal-mining disaster and the failure of the General Strike in Britain. It also refers to the bells of a number of places in South Wales: Merthyr, Newport, Cardiff, and Wye.

Covers have been done by The Ian Campbell Folk Group, Jimmy Page and Ralph McTell, and there was a good mid-1960s version by American folk rockers, The Byrds, which reputedly influenced George Harrisons Beatles number, If I Needed Someone.

Let’s hope that we will all hear them ‘Ringing out for Christmas Day’.

Harry Gotch