History of Christmas Carols: Silver Bells

Updated on January 22, 2018

History of Christmas Bells

Bells are rung to announce an important life event, either happy or sad. They are rung at weddings and funerals but at Christmas time they are rung to announce the birth of Jesus. The ringing of bells goes back to pagan rituals. They rang bells to keep evil spirits away and bells were a part of many of their winter celebrations. As the Christian holiday of Christmas was placed on a date used for the celebration of other pagan deities to encourage conversion to Christianity, bells were incorporated into the Christian holiday.

Origin Of Christmas Carols

Christmas carols have an ancient history from extremely formal Latin hymns to more popular Christian songs sung from door to door.

  • They first appeared in second century Rome as hymns, sung in Latin, to enforce the doctrine of the Holy Trinity which was being challenged by Arianism, a belief claiming that Jesus was a being lower than God because he was created human.
  • The ninth and tenth centuries added a rhyming scheme to hymns and introduced pagan lore to make them more acceptable to the general population.
  • St. Francis of Assisi was responsible for the creation of carols popular to the masses by encouraging carols sung in the audience's native language.
  • Christmas caroling, from home to home, traces its origins back to 19th century England.
  • The tradition of singing and travelling to neighbors homes, to wish them good cheer, began in Victorian England, when medieval church carols merged with Christian folk music.
  • At this time, Christmas was becoming more commercialized and many Christmas carols, still popular today, were written.
  • The culture of caroling has gone by the wayside as it is no longer feasible to assume all neighbors share the same faith and proclivities but Christmas carols still are hugely popular.
  • It would not be Christmas for those who celebrate without the traditional Christmas carols playing in the home and on the radio, including some newer additions such as "Silver Bells".

It is rumored that the original inspiration for the Christmas song, "Silver Bells" was a tiny bell that Livingston and Evans had on their work desk.

History Of The Christmas Song, "Silver Bells"

Silver Bells was written for the movie, The Lemon Drop Kid, starring Bob Hope and Marilyn Maxwell in 1951. It was written by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans who were very reluctant to write a Christmas song as new ones had never made the hit list. Their uncertaintly about taking on such a project also stemmed from the fact that their contracts were coming due and they had not written a hit in a while. Another flop would have sealed their fate.

Because the studio was insistent on a new Christmas song being written for this movie, the duo wrote a song based on department store Santa's and Salvation Army workers tinkling their bells on New York street corners. They named their song, "Tinkle Bell" and fortunately for all of us Jay told his wife about the song, including their name for it. Asking Jay if he was out of his mind, she proceeded to inform him of the slang meaning of 'tinkle' understood by most people.

Lucky for the world that Jay accepted his wife's criticism of the title with maturity. He and Ray loved the music and melody of their song, "Tinkle Bell". The word 'Tinkle' was replaced with 'Silver' and leaving the rest of the lyrics untouched, the rest as they say is history! "Silver Bells" became a huge hit when Bing Crosby recorded a duet of the song with Carol Richards, securing the employment of Jay and Ray with Paramount Pictures and providing the world with a much loved musical tradition.

Resources Used

Distant, Daniel. CP Entertainment. Origin of Christmas Carols, Songs Represent Christian History. November 30, 2011

Estrella, Espie. About.com Music Education. Silver Bells History of Christmas Carols. 2012

Laura. Christmas Lore. The History of Christmas Bells. 2012

Oloffson, Kristi. Time World. Brief History Christmas Caroling. December 21, 2009


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    • Teresa Coppens profile image

      Teresa Coppens 5 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      Thanks K9, glad you enjoyed it. Thanks for your continued support! It always means a lot!


    • K9keystrokes profile image

      India Arnold 5 years ago from Northern, California

      "Silver Bells" remains one of my favorite Christmas songs. Crosby's smooth crooning didn't hurt this song one bit, luckily for the writers! I found your sidebar offering the history of Christmas Bells very interesting, Teresa. Nice job! Voting up!


    • Teresa Coppens profile image

      Teresa Coppens 5 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      Thanks Doc. I agree with your assessment of 'Tinkle Bells' as a song title. What were they thinking??????

    • Doc Sonic profile image

      Glen Nunes 5 years ago from Cape Cod, Massachusetts

      "Silver Bells" is a classic, a very nice piece of songwriting. "Tinkle Bells", not so much. Great history of the song, and of caroling in general. Voted up and interesting.

    • Teresa Coppens profile image

      Teresa Coppens 5 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      My thoughts exactly Alissa. So glad you enjoyed the history of this tune. I'm in the Christmas mood already.

    • alissaroberts profile image

      Alissa Roberts 5 years ago from Normandy, TN

      One of my favorites! It just isn't Christmas until you hear this song. I love the history behind it and had to laugh when I read the original title was going to be Tinkle Bells :D Just goes to show that men should always listen to their wife! Voted up - useful and interesting!

    • Teresa Coppens profile image

      Teresa Coppens 5 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      Thanks aviannovice. It was a treat to write. Glad you enjoyed it.

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 5 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      Thanks for the terrific history of the song, which I never knew. Awesome!