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Ring the Bells

December 17, 2012

Clare and I were Christmas shopping last Saturday afternoon. As we entered a store we were greeted by the familiar sound of bells ringing. The Salvation Army’s Red Kettle Campaign is 120 years old this year. Willing volunteers were on the job ringing with gusto to help celebrate the anniversary and collect money for the needy in our community.

This is the season for bells. Inside the store the strains of a Christmas song welcomed us to the cathedral of capitalism. “Sleigh bells ring, are you listening?” Never mind that the temperature outside was in the upper sixties.

Several years ago I wrote a Christmas story entitled “A Bell for Victoria.” The tale was set in Hendersonville, North Carolina, and featured the bells of St. James Episcopal Church. The church is one of a few in the Carolinas to feature change ringing.

The tower of St. James houses eight bells arranged according to the progression of a musical scale. They are rung by a team of eight with a tower captain calling signals much like a football quarterback.  Each member of the team rings one bell by pulling a rope attached to it high in the tower above.

Change ringing derives its name from the varying patterns in which the bells are sounded.  The number of sequences possible for eight bells, like those at St. James, is 40,320. The art of ringing these changes originated in English churches several hundred years ago.

English handbells are much more common as a form of church music usually played by a handbell choir. Members may ring up to four finely-crafted bells, two in each hand. In the church I serve our handbell choir, named Clarion Sounds, practices every week. The sound that the bells create in a worship service is divine. The precision with which the choir works as a group is fascinating.

Bells are often associated with weddings. Whether rung as a carillon in a tower, on handbells, or simulated on an organ, the chiming of the hour may precede the entry of the bride. At the conclusion of a wedding ceremony the joyful pealing of bells may announce the new union.

On the occasion of their fiftieth anniversary celebration, a couple told me that “Silver Bells” was their favorite Christmas song. They had included the song in their Christmas wedding ceremony.

Bells may also be used at funerals. The tolling of a single stationary bell rung by a heavy striker produces a stately sound. Large bells are tolled slowly during funeral processions.

Death may come at any season. A Christmas funeral can be particularly difficult. As a widow planned the funeral for her husband, she requested that the organist play “Jingle Bells” as the casket was taken from the sanctuary. The musician looked surprised, but the bereaved woman explained that the song was her husband’s favorite. At the service the organist did her best to make the song sound solemn.

After the funeral, the organist said, “I hope the music pleased you.”

“Everything was fine,” said the widow, “but that last song was not the one I wanted.”

“But you said you wanted ‘Jingle Bells.’”

“Did I say that? I meant ‘When They Ring Those Golden Bells.’”

Many of our best-loved Christmas songs include bells as a part of the cheerful lyrics. But Christmas is not necessarily a season to be jolly. Many people have experienced deep sorrow at this season.

In 1843, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, a widower, married Frances Appleton. Henry and Fanny settled in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and eventually had six children. They were a happy family until the Civil War abruptly destroyed their serenity. It violently interrupted the lives of everybody, in the North and in the South.

In the summer of 1861, Fanny Longfellow was melting sealing wax on an envelope when the long folds of her dress caught fire. Her dress ablaze, she ran into Henry’s study. Desperately trying to smother the flames with a small rug and his own body, Henry was badly burned on his face, arms, and hands. Fanny, whose burns were much more severe, died the following morning.

Longfellow was despondent after his wife’s death. Enduring Christmas without Fanny, Henry captured in his journal the sentiments so many have felt through the ages: “How inexpressibly sad are all holidays.”

In early December 1863, Henry received word that his oldest son, Charles, a lieutenant in the Army of the Potomac, had been severely wounded. Although Charles would survive, his recovery at that time was uncertain.

Longfellow greeted Christmas with a heavy heart that year. He had lost his wife, his son had nearly died, and the country continued waging war on itself.

The bells that Henry heard ringing that Christmas inspired him to write the poem that would eventually become the carol “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.”

Longfellow’s personal difficulties and the atrocities of war give the words to the carol a deeper meaning.

 

I heard the bells on Christmas day
Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet the words repeat
Of peace on earth, good will to men.
 
 I thought as now this day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along the unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

 

The third verse takes on a much darker tone, reflecting Longfellow’s despondent mood.

And in despair I bowed my head:
“There is no peace on earth,” I said,
“For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.”

 

Even in his despair, the fourth verse of the carol offers reason for hope.

 

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep;
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
With peace on earth, good will to men.”

During Advent, the words to Longfellow’s carol serve as a reminder of one of the most important themes of Christmas. Peace is not the absence of conflict or difficulty. Peace is a gift of grace to the human soul.
That is reason enough to ring the bells.

 

Kirk H. Neely
© December 2012

 

 

 

 

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