The significance of bell-ringing
by Rebecca Parkinson (revised, originally published in 2008)
Suitable for Whole School (Pri)
To consider the origin of Christmas bells and what they signify.
Preparation and materials
- Have available a video of bell-ringing and the means to show it during the assembly. An example is available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pugRM2Nsnyo (6.00 minutes long)
- Play the video of bell-ringing as the children enter the room.
When everyone is settled, ask the children to describe what was being shown. Ask the children if they know anything about bell-ringing, and explain that this assembly will teach them a bit about it.
- Tell the children the following facts.
- Bells have been part of Christian traditions for a long time. Bells are mentioned very early in the Bible. The book of Exodus (39.25–26) tells us that priests in the temple used to have small bells sewn onto their robes in between embroidered pomegranates. Every step that the priest took would cause the bells to jingle; the idea was that the jingling would act as praises that were heard by God.
- For a few hundred years after Jesus’ ministry, Christianity was a banned religion in many parts of the world. At that time, special messengers would go from house to house to tell Christians about services that were going to take place. Later, these messengers would knock on doors quietly with wooden hammers. As Christianity became more acceptable, messengers would use these hammers to bang on metal to summon people to services.
- As Christianity became more established, followers of Jesus wanted to build churches to worship in. They built tall church towers so that churches could be seen from miles away, and they placed bells in these towers to summon people to worship. In some places, bells were rung by someone hitting a bell with a hammer; in other places, ropes were attached to aid the ringing.
- At first, the church bells were simply used to inform people that a church service would start soon. In those days, people didn’t have watches or clocks, so time-keeping was much more difficult than today. Later, different formations of bell-ringing were used to announce a death, a wedding, a victory (the end of a war) and important events (people would hear the bells and travel to the church where an announcement would be made), or to remind people of a special celebration.
- Christmas and Easter Sunday were wonderful celebrations and the bells would ring out especially cheerfully on those days. Because of this, many hymns and Christmas carols that featured bells were written.
- Ask the children to listen to the following verses from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem called ‘Christmas bells’ and see if they can understand the 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!
And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
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!’
- Remind the children that there are many Christmas songs that mention bells in some way. Ask if they can name any of them. Suggestions could include ‘Jingle bells’, ‘Ding dong merrily on high’, ‘I heard the bells on Christmas Day’ and ‘Jingle bell rock’.
- Suggest that when the children hear bells mentioned this Christmas, they could remember that Christmas bells were originally there to remind everyone that it was Christmas Day and time to celebrate the birth of Jesus.
Time for reflection
It is easy to become so caught up in the excitement of Christmas that we forget to think about its real meaning. Spend a few moments thinking about the Christmas story and how the arrival of Jesus changed the world.
Thank you for Christmas.
Thank you that we have this special time to remind us that you sent Jesus into this world because you loved us so much.
In all our fun and excitement, please help us not to forget the things in life that really matter.
Any carol or song that mentions bells.