History of Bells at Christmas Time
The ringing of bells can be traced back to pagan times when noisemakers were used to scare away evil spirits in the night. Some of those noisemakers were bells, but bells were too pretty and fun to play to just be used as noisemakers. Gradually, they became a happy part of many Christian celebrations, Christmas in particular. The bell sound became even more impressive as bells were incorporated into the structure of church buildings themselves. Bells in a church steeple can be heard for miles around as they herald the arrival of the season and mark special Christmas services.
The Bells on Temple Square
The Bells on Temple Square is a group of 32 handbell musicians, formed under the direction of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. They perform with the Tabernacle Choir in concert and on recordings. They also present two concerts of their own every year in the Tabernacle. The 2006 Christmas concert of the group attracted an audience of 15,000 people, a record attendance for a handbell concert.
The Bells on Temple Square handbell group was officially begun in 2005. It seems the group has been around longer, but prior to that time, they had to borrow bells and did not have such official status. In 2005, they received a donation of a 7-octave set of English handbells, a 6½-octave set of handbells, and two 6-octave sets of hand chimes and were then well equipped to become an independent handbell-ringing group of musicians.
History of CHRISTMAS BELLS, CS 54
This little Christmas song lends itself very well to the addition of handbells. It includes a lovely optional descant for voice or instrument, which can be performed with handbells. Our mp3 sample below demonstrates the use of handbells with this piece.
Laurence Lyon, writer of the hymn text and music, received a doctorate in composition from the Eastman School of Music. Brother Lyon has more than one hundred published compositions, many of which have been performed by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, but this was his first composition for children.
When Brother Lyon was a graduate student, he was in the middle of composing a very complicated orchestral piece when the words and music of this little song just came into his mind.
“In the midst of doing this complex writing, this little tune just popped out of my head and onto the piano, accompaniment, words and all… Then, before I could continue on to my viola concerto, another melody, which seemed to fit the first melody, also seemed to want to be written down. I sang the second melody with the first, and they fit” (Elaine Cannon, Our Children’s Songs, p. 36).
It would appear that this song had a mind of its own and pretty much demanded to be written.
Our Arrangement of CHRISTMAS BELLS
Our Congregation Choir for Primary arrangement of this song includes an enhanced piano part which also has a very bell-like quality.
Listen to it here with handbells playing the countermelody. PURCHASE it here.
3 Ideas for Using this Arrangement
- Use the enhanced piano to add a nice touch to Christmas singing of this song, either at home or in Primary.
- Add an instrumental countermelody to the children’s voices singing the main melody. The children could sing the song through once with just the enhanced accompaniment. The second time through an instrumental descant could be added.
- Some of the children or an adult soloist could sing the countermelody.
Handbells have been an important part of the Christmas season since, well… since before there even was a Christmas season… since pagan times! They can lend a very special, festive sound to many Christmas songs, but particularly this one which is all about Christmas bells. Children at home or in Primary do not have to learn anything new or hard to enjoy participating in the performance of this piece. Younger ones can simply sing the main melody. Older children or adults can add the enhanced piano part and the descant, whether sung or performed with instruments. With relatively little effort, you can have a memorable and fun Christmas performance.