Ring Those Bells!

Bells have meaning all around the world, and we are all certainly familiar with church bells, where it all began for weddings. They are also rung for funerals; any big life event can be announced to the community through the ringing of bells. I’ve used them for both funerals and weddings. And we ring out the old, and ring in the new.

Before everyone had an apple watch or even a clock, bells marked the time of day and united a community – and they still do. Bells are, of course, used as a call to prayer.

Ancient Chinese bell

Church bells can be traced back to 400 AD and became common in Europe by the Middle Ages. Bells were believed to ward off evil spirits, which is why you often hear car horns honking and lots of noise when a couple leaves their wedding ceremony. But on the positive side bells are also supposed to grant wishes and were considered a sign of good luck.

From a practical point of view the sound of a large bell is important. For example: ringing the dinner bell to call the cowboys and ranch hands, or to alert people to respond to a fire, are just a few ways bells are used. 

Ringing bells at weddings was popularized in the Celtic tradition, one of my favorite sources of wedding inspiration. I love the Irish tradition of the ‘truce bell’ which I’m sure I’ve written about before. A bell is given to the couple on their wedding day and meant to be rung if the couple has a disagreement in their marriage – reminding them of ‘the gleam in their eye’ on their wedding day. This is still done and it’s fun to have a special bell with your name and wedding date engraved upon it.

A ‘truce’ bell for a wedding

We can’t forget about music. Bells are one of the oldest percussion instruments and found in ancient China,  spreading across Asia, and probably came to Europe from there. Bell choirs, or hand-bells, are still a somewhat popular way to use bells musically.

The sound of bells evokes a range of emotions – from peace and happiness to sadness or danger.  When a meditation or ‘savasana,’ the final resting pose in yoga is concluded, the leader rings a ‘tingsha’ bell, singing bowl or small gong to signal the end.

We often see bells used as the very symbol of marriage, and the image of two bells tied together with a ribbon is ubiquitous, yet many of us have never thought about the origins of this custom.  Songs, movies, books, invitations and decorations all depict wedding bells! Even the color of the bells has meaning – with silver bells for a 25thanniversary and gold for the 50th. And Silver Bellsis of course a popular Christmas song.

Church chimes and ropes in hand of bell-ringer on belfry of Trinity Cathedral,
Ukraine, Donetsk, April 28, 2019 year. (BIG STOCK)

A really unusual custom in Guatemala involves a white bell placed at the entrance of the home where the wedding reception will take place. The bell is filled with rice, flour and other grains to represent abundance and prosperity. When the married couple enters, the groom’s mother breaks the bell, freeing the grains, as a sign of best wishes for the couple.

I was fortunate to have an up-close experience with carillon bells – which is a keyboard instrument that triggers bells – the many tones of the bells are ringing the music the keyboardist is playing, something way more complex than bells could normally accomplish. While on tour with my band in a Belgian town, the mayor took us to experience this, and the carillon player played ‘Take Five’ on the carillon in honor of the music festival. What an amazing experience – and the bells sounded amazing, too!

One of my favorite musicians, Robbie Robertson writes in his song ‘Showdown at Big Sky’ 

…people, people
Can you hear the sound
From every village and every town
Let the bells ring out (ring those bells)
Hear the bells ring in
Let the bells ring out (everybody)
Keep them ringing, ringin’

At a wedding ceremony you may find little bells distributed to ring at the conclusion of the service. As you ring them, now you will know why.

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