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Christmas Bells

December 24, 2011
By DON WILLIAMS , For The Leader Herald

At Christmastime, bells come to the forefront - we "ring the bells" for the Salvation Army, and we sing "Jingle Bells," "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Ring" and "Silver Bells," among other "bell" songs. At New Year's, we ring out the old and ring in the new! It appears the presence of bells in our lives is diminishing and they are becoming an "endangered species." There was a time when bells were a major ingredient in the everyday lives in the Adirondack hamlets and throughout our country.

Many remember growing up with the church bells. Every church in town had a bell in the belfry. On Sunday mornings or during evening prayer services, the community enjoyed the "symphony of the bells," as each church took its turn to call the people to worship with the chiming of the bells. We always enjoyed watching our bell ringer pull on the rope, ride up in the air about 10 feet as the heavy bell swung above, and then return to the floor as his weight pulled the bell the other way.

I have a couple of those big teachers' bells with the wooden handles. They were a staple in the Adirondack one-room schools to call the pupils to the classes. They have a joyous tone, especially if you were one who liked school.

The "teacher bells" or "call bells" I remember were the little round bells that sat on the teacher's desk and made a "ping" when the top was tapped. Teachers used them to get attention and to signal it was time to be quiet. Our second-grade teacher in Northville, Mrs. Cunningham, used the little bell to ring out of her window when it was time for us to come in from the playground. We played a game, "ring the bell," where someone covered their eyes, another student rang the bell, and the person who was "it" had to guess who had the bell. The little bell also was called a tea bell; it was used in the old days to signal that it was afternoon tea time.

Some of my favorite bells were the sleigh bells. The rows of the little round bells on a leather strap were included with the horses' harnesses and "jingled" when the horses trotted along - hence, "Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells, Jingle all the way!" My uncle gave me a 4-foot set when I was young, but someone "walked-off" with them during one of his auctions in our barn where they hung.

There is something forlorn about the sound of the clanging bell that hung around a cow's neck and rang as she walked along. It was comforting, though, to hear them coming toward the barn with the bells a'clanging, especially when it was getting dark by milking time. The loud bell made it easier to find a wandering cow that strayed away from the herd.

Interestingly, some of the first "bells" of record were, what we call, maracas. They originated in the old countries several centuries ago, with the first being simply, gourds. The seeds rattled inside when they were shook or banged against hands or hips. We have a set that came from my wife's family - an unusual artifact to come out of an Adirondack home.

Today, especially at Christmastime, we sometimes get to enjoy a handbell choir making beautiful bell music. One bard observed that "in our hearts we should let the Christmas Bells ring throughout the year." A good thought!



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