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Musical Musings: Christmas

Ding Dong Merrily on High

by Gary D. Penkala

Part I: In the Beginning...

Along with the organ, bells are one of the oldest instruments to be used by the Church. Bells date from pre-Christian times and were first used in ancient China. At that time bells were made of flat pieces of metal that were riveted together, producing music of rather dubious quality. These bells were used to call attention to official announcements and proclamations.

Bells and cymbals made their way into the culture of Israel and are mentioned in several places in the Old Testament. First Chronicles describes the transfer of the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem, accompanied by "horns, trumpets and cymbals, and the music of harps and lutes." The book of Exodus indicates that Aaron's vestments as high priest "shall be made entirely of violet material... all around the hem at the bottom shall be woven pomegranates with gold bells between them... Aaron shall wear it when ministering, that its tinkling may be heard as he enters and leaves the Lord's presence in the sanctuary." And of course the familiar Psalm 150 bids us to "praise the Lord with sounding cymbals, praise him with clanging cymbals."

Saint Paulinus of Nola (c. 400 AD) is credited with introducing bells into Christian worship, as a means of calling the faithful to church. Other saints, too, are associated with bells. Saint Agatha (3rd century) is the patroness of bell founders. Saint Dunstan himself worked as a founder in the 10th century. Legends have arisen around Saint Patrick and Saint Nicholas, that they always carried a tiny bell with them -- to ward off demons and evil spirits!

The steeple bell, introduced by Paulinus to call people to worship, began a long history of chimes and carillons that continues to this day. Churches took great pride in their bell(s) and a ritual developed whereby the bell itself was baptized, christened (anointed with oil) and named before being placed in the tower. The chime of bells at Saint Patrick's Cathedral in New York are named Saint Patrick, Our Lady, Saint Joseph, Holy Name, and Saints Francis Xavier, Alphonsus Liguori, Michael, Ann, Elizabeth, Augustine, Anthony, Agnes, John, Cecilia, Bridget, Helen, Peter, Thomas Aquinas and Godfrey of England. Each bell is inscribed with its name and a descriptive verse about the saint. What a vast amount of fundamental music tradition is lost by those churches, who rather than put finances into one or two real bells, choose to install a radio on the roof to broadcast imitations of bells to the neighborhood.

  Back to Christmas Index

Part II: Carillon and Handbells 

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