Facts & Fables

  • Sleigh bells were used in Europe as early as the 14 or 1500’s as “warning” that a carriage or livery wagon was careening around a slippery corner on less-than-perfect highways.
  • Gentry’s bells were mostly of the ornate, graduated style. Smaller, light-sounding bells were used on the teams of ladies’ carriages; while full, more robust-sounding bells were used on the men’s or families’ teams.
  • The phrase, “I’ll be there with bells on,” dates back to 17th century Europe, perhaps even earlier, when lords and ladies journeying to someone’s mansion for a party might be mired in mud, might slip off the road, or might experience some similar mishap. As “ransom” for being dug out or rescued by the host’s servants, the driver would need to give up his horses’ bell straps. Since most straps were quite valuable and very distinct in appearance and sound, this was a costly sacrifice. Thus, when meaning, “I’ll be there! No problem!” in those days, the party-goer would accept an invitation by saying, “I’ll be there with bells on!”
  • Livery drivers used cross-split, easily forged, loud, plain-looking bells. Because the colonies were settled by “commoners”, for the most part, the louder, more resonant livery-style bells echo in most Americans’ earliest memories of sleigh bells.
  • The sounds customarily associated with American colonial sleigh bells were created by bells made primarily of nickel, copper and silver, or mixtures thereof.
  • Many people, of course, equate the sound of sleigh bells ringing, not so much with their own rides through the snow, but with thoughts of St. Nick’s reindeer, gift-giving, familiar Christmas songs, television ad jingles and, in general, the winter holiday season.
  • Another reason for thinking of bells at Christmastime is the Legend of the First Christmas Bell. Please see the included bookmark with that title.