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Hearing the peal of the bells on Christmas Eve

There’s something about the ringing of a bell that speaks to the soul.

That has been the case for millenia. Scholars and archaeologists say the earliest known bells date back more than 5,000 years, made of ceramic materials in Asia long before most cultures were working in metal.

Technically a percussion instrument because they sound when struck, usually by an internal clapper, bells have a hollow shape that vibrates and produces a musical tone. Today bells come in all shapes and sizes, made of metal, glass, ceramics, crystal and other materials, and they can be fine tuned to produced specific desired sounds.

From the Far East to Europe, Africa and the Americas, bells have long been associated with religious rites and served as a way to call communities together centuries before newspapers, TVs, radios, telephones, telegraphs or sirens had been invented. For many decades in America, the sound of a community’s church bell was something that prompted people to attend a service or gather in response to an important development or emergency. When a fire broke out in the night, for example, bells, including the local church or school bell, would be used to wake people and beckon them to come help battle the blaze.

In the book of Exodus, the Bible notes that some priests adorned their garments with bells, and bells were used in ancient times by military patrols or to hang on pets and livestock to make them easier to find if they should wander off.

For many people, the peal of a bell stirs something deep within. It conjures up childhood memories, such as running late for a church service and hearing the bell toll to call all the members or taking a sleigh ride behind a team of jingling horses.

Poems and songs have been inspired by bells, and some of them remain holiday standards to this day. “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” is a well-known Christmas carol based on a poem written during the Civil War. Author Henry Wadsworth Longfellow actually felt despair upon hearing the church bells ring to mark Christmas, knowing that the peace in Earth that they signified did not exist. He wrote that the booming sound of cannons drowned out the ringing of those bells, “For hate is strong, And mocks the song, Of peace on earth, good-will toward men.” And although it seemed an “earthquake rent the hearth-stones of a continent,” the poet realized that the bells pealed more loudly and deeply. He concluded that this was because, “God is not dead, nor doth he sleep; The Wrong shall fail, The Right prevail, With peace on earth, good-will toward men.”

The holiday tune “Carol of the Bells” also had origins that may surprise you. Written as a Ukranian folk song around 1914, the haunting four-note melody originally was a “winter well-wishing song” that had nothing to do with Christmas, according to scholars at Rice University. It told the tale of a swallow that flew into a home, signaling that the family would have a bountiful year ahead.

Like Wadsworth’s poem, this tune was composed against a backdrop of political and social upheaval. In its country of origin, it is not as popular as it is in America, where new lyrics have caused it to be strongly associated with Christmas and New Year celebrations. Natives of the region where it was written consider it instead to be a song that heralds the coming of spring.

These are just a couple of examples of songs and poems inspired by bells. The sheer number of them makes it impossible to list them all here, but that also makes it clear that bells have a real impact on people as individuals and on their communities and cultures.

That influence also gives us the term “ring in the new year.” It seems that it was customary in 19th century England for churches to ring their bells at midnight Dec. 31 to welcome the incoming year. Still to this day, many in America talk about their plans for ringing in the new year — and that may never have been more true than now, when we all want to put 2020 behind us and start fresh with renewed hope for 2021.

It was actually a community activity that got me to thinking about all of this and led me to do a little research. Social media posts floated earlier this year suggested that people in a given area plan ahead to go outdoors at a certain hour on Christmas Eve to ring bells and celebrate the holiday — together but apart, as we have done nearly everything during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Some people in the village of Belmont latched onto this idea and organized an effort to get residents to walk out onto their porches at 6 p.m. Christmas Eve and ring bells for two minutes. Initially, the idea was to create a sense of wonder for children in the village.

On Dec. 15, though, former mayor Stan Sobel died after a long battle with cancer. Since he was a beloved community leader who started several holiday traditions, such as a community tree lighting ceremony, some people suggested that the Christmas Eve bells also be rung in his honor.

So, at 6 p.m. Thursday, my husband and I each took a string of sleigh bells and headed out onto our front porch. Right on schedule, we heard Cheryl Skinner ring the Honor Bell that stands in front of the Tri-State Military Veterans Museum a couple of blocks away from our home and we b=began to ring our bells along with her. That bell tolled 20 times in honor of veterans lost and to spread hope for peace on Earth.

The weather was pretty miserable at that point, with a chill in the air. The wind was beginning to whip, and a cold rain was falling. That precipitation was about to turn to sleet and then snow, bringing the entire region a white, but potentially hazardous, Christmas.

We really heard only one other bell, that of a neighbor to our west on Market Street. I believe the stiff breeze and steady rain probably made it difficult for sound to carry very far.

I don’t know how many of my Belmont neighbors actually participated, but I am glad that we did. Not only did it give me a sense of belonging to something bigger than myself and what was going on in my own home, but it gave me an opportunity to pause and think about Stan and all that he had done for our community and the strong influence he had on my own life. He is greatly missed by many, and I hope he could hear those bells ringing better than I could and knew that they were ringing, in part, for him.

May your own holiday season be all that you want it to be, and may 2021 treat you well. Jan. 1 is still several days away. You still have plenty of time to find a special bell to help you ring in the new year.

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