Traditions of Christmas Bells and Candles
Bells, especially Church Bells, have traditionally been associated with Christmas for a long time. In the Anglican and Catholic churches, the church day starts at sunset, so any service after that is the first service of the day. So a service on Christmas Eve after sunset is traditionally the first service of Christmas day! In churches that have a Bell or Bells, They are often rung to signal the start of this service.
In some churches in the UK, it is traditional that the largest bell in the church is rung four times in the hour before midnight and then at midnight all the bells are rung in celebration.
In the Catholic Church, Christmas and Easter are the only times that Mass is allowed to be held at Midnight. It's traditional that at both midnight Masses, the church and altar bells too in many cases are rung while the Priest says the "Gloria" (Gloria in excelsis Deo).
Having a Mass at Midnight at Christmas dates back to the early church, when it was believed that Jesus was born at midnight, although there has never been any proof of this! A lot of Churches have midnight services on Christmas Eve, although not every church will have a mass or communion as part of the service.
In many Catholic countries such as France, Spain and Italy, the midnight mass service is very important and everyone tries to go to a service.
In Victorian times, it was very fashionable to go carol singing with small handbells to play the tune of the carol. Sometimes there would only be the bells and no singing! Handbell ringing is still popular today.
Perhaps the most famous bells at Christmas now are the ones in the song 'Jingle Bells'. However, the song was first called "One Horse Open Sleigh" and was originally published, in the USA, in September 1857 as a Thanksgiving song and NOT a Christmas one! But it soon became associated with Christmas because of the 'snowy' lyrics and many choirs were singing it at Christmas in the 1860s and 1870s. It was first recorded in 1889. Often only the first verse (and chorus) are now sung. The other verses are about driving the 'one horse open sleigh' rather fast and crashing it!
Jingle Bells was also the first song to be broadcast from space in December 1965 when the astronauts Tom Stafford and Wally Schirra said they had spotted a sleigh in space! They then took out a harmonica and sleigh bells which they had smuggled onto the Gemini 6 space craft and played and sang the song to mission control.
Jingle Bells was written by James Lord Pierpont (1822–1893) and the original version had some slightly different words and a slightly different tune for the chorus than are used today. There is some debate as to where it was written. Some people claim it was written in 1850 Medford, Massachusetts; while other people claim it was written nearer 1875 when James Lord Pierpoint lived in Savannah, Georgia
There are many different reasons why candles are associated with Christmas, although no one knows when they first became connected!
They were used during ancient winter solstice celebrations a way of remembering that spring would soon come.
One of the earliest records of candles being used at Christmas is from the middle ages, where a large candle was used to represent the star of Bethlehem. Jesus is sometimes called 'the Light of the World' by Christians. This might have started the custom of the Advent Crown and Advent Candles.
Candles are also used during Hanukkah, the Jewish Festival of light which is also celebrated during winter. During the eight nights of Hanukkah, a candle is lit in a special menorah (candelabra) called a 'hanukkiyah'.
Candles are also used in the modern winter festival Kwanzaa, where a special candle holder called a kinara, that holds seven candles is used.
Perhaps the most famous use of candles at Christmas are Carols by Candlelight Services. These are services when the church is only lit by candles.
Candles were also originally used to decorate Christmas Trees, until safer electric lights were invented!
In some parts of Ireland, it was traditional to have a Yule candle instead of a Yule Log.
In Southern India, Christians often put small oil burning clay lamps on the flat roofs of their homes to celebrate Christmas. Christians in China use paper lanterns to decorate their Christmas trees. Candles are also used as part of the St. Lucia's or St. Lucy's day celebrations in Sweden.