Sleigh Bells Ring!

These days, the sound of jingle bells is a sure sign of Christmastime, but have you ever wondered where that tradition came from?

Horse bells date back some 3,000 years, and have served a few different functions throughout history.  Medieval war horses were often adorned with a single bell on their rump, which was believed to bring good luck and protect against injury, disease, and evil.  These bells carried deep significance: they would be intricately engraved with the family coat of arms, inscriptions, or symbols, they might be plated in gold or silver, and they implied much about the family’s affluence and status.

Horse bells saw their real heyday in the 1800s when the horse and carriage ruled the roads, both in Europe and in North America.  They served a dual purpose of communication and safety.  The sound of bells warned others in the area that a horse-drawn vehicle was approaching.  A horse pulling a sleigh through the snow makes very little sound, and could be very difficult to see approaching – impossible in a blizzard or a thick fog.  Many regions therefore came to require by law the use of bells on sleighs in order to prevent accidents and reduce chaos and confusion.

As sleighing became a popular recreational activity and winter sport, in addition to a prevalent mode of transportation, great care was taken in the turnout of the hitch.  The horses were meticulously groomed; the harness spotlessly polished and adorned in lavish decorations, including carefully chosen bells of different shapes and sizes.  Bells were an important part of a family’s identity.  Every family’s bells sounded different, so you could easily recognize who was coming by their jingle.

Bells served a very similar purpose on wheeled vehicles in the towns.  Aristocrats could register their bell tones; others would recognize the tone and know to pull aside for them.  Horse-drawn vendors were easily recognized by their customers as they made their way through town – much like hearing the ice cream truck today.  In busy logging yards, the yardmen credited logs to the correct teamster according to the chime of his horses’ bells.

As horse-drawn transportation has been replaced by the motorcar, horse bells have disappeared.  Their significance mostly forgotten, the tradition of sleigh bells is now memorialized in a few famous songs, and widely romanticized as part of the Christmas spirit.


Contributor:  Christine Beattie