Sleigh Bells Ring: Are You Listening?

By Emily Koetsier, Collections Manager

Come, let us travel back 130 years or so, to the time before automobiles.  Now, imagine walking down a snowy street.  The walkways are tramped down by previous passer-by.  The road is turned and churned by horse hooves and sleigh runners.  The air is crisp and cool, holding the promise of more snow fall.  The shops are lit from within, scattered bits of conversation leaking out when doors are opened.  And tinkling chimes are heard all around; the chimes of sleigh bells.  Bells heralding the coming of a magnificent sleigh, carrying joyous folk and proud horses tacked with the ringing bells.

Bells have various uses and purposes and are as old as time; or at least as old as bronze.  An early bell shape is similar to that of cow bells you may have seen around.  They were shaped like a four-sided pyramid, or quadrangular.  They were made of two plates of iron that were bent to form a corner each and then pieced together with iron rivets and coated in bronze (Hatch 13).  There is an example of one such bell held at the National Museum of Ireland, known as the Clog-an-eadhacta Phatraic or “The Bell of the Will of St. Patrick.”  The legend of the bell is that the sound was so frightful that no snake would have remained in Ireland to listen to the racket St. Patrick would have been making with his Clog-an-eadhacta; especially if they were akin to snakes of oriental origin that were addicted to sweet sounding flute music (Hatch 14).

Alas, we have digressed from the topic of this post; sleigh bells.  Sleigh bells have a different origin, and little has changed from the first.  What we call a sleigh bell was first known as a Crotal.  Spherical in shape with small holes and a ball inside.  The ball was once made of stone but is more commonly metal today (Hatch 15).  Eric Hatch, in his book The Little Book of Bells, notes the longevity and purity of the Crotal bell:

“The Crotal is a true bell form and is the most ancient of all forms.  The marked resemblance between the ancient and modern Crotal is extraordinary.  I cannot think of any other object that was created thousands of years ago in a form so perfect that no one since has been able to find a way of improving it.” (15)

Sleigh bells have had many uses in the past and in modern times.  They became a symbol of status and wealth; decorations on horse harnesses ad tack to display the wealth of the owner.  They were also viewed as good luck charms and wards against evil, disease, and injury.  They also served as a warning to pedestrians and other travelers.  The bells gave an obvious and early warning that there was an oncoming sleigh, giving time for people to get out of the sleigh’s path.  This was important because sleighs were not able to stop quickly, so listening for the bells was a matter of safety.  Vendors using horse drawn conveyances also used bells to signal they were in the area, much like a modern ice cream truck.

Songs such as Jingle Bells and Sleigh Ride use sleigh bells for lyrics as well as instruments for the song.  James Lord Pierpont compose One Horse open Sleigh, more commonly known as Jingle Bells, in 1857.  The chorus of the song an example of onomatopoeia, “Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way,” is one show case of sleigh bells and their sound.  Jingle Bells is making use of the bell sounds to demonstrate the joy and cheer that the sound brings in the wintertime.  Sleigh Ride also uses sleigh bell sounds in the lyrics, “Ring tingle tingling too.”  Sleigh Ride is using the sound of the bells to keep a couple ensconced on their sleigh ride, alone but for each other.  Another classic winter song with sleigh bells is, Winter Wonderland.  Here the lyrics prompt for walkers to listen for the sound of the bells.  This first line, “Sleigh bells ring, are you listening?” sets the scene and mood for the walkers, prompting happiness; but it is also a nod to listen for the warning of an oncoming sleigh.

In the year 2020, 36 cultural institutions from every corner of Vermont will collaborate on a suite of exhibitions and events on the theme 2020 Vision: Seeing the World Through Technology.  Billings Farm & Museum will be participating through an installment of Windows to the Past and a Machine of the Month blog posting.  Check in regularly for updates and details on what we have to offer!

Works Cited

Hatch, Eric. The Little Book of Bells. First ed., Duell, Sloan, & Pearce, 1964.


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