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Home > Articles > The Ringing In of Christmas Eve

The Ringing In of Christmas Eve
Dr. William Payn

At the stroke of midnight, the church bell or lowest C handbell strikes the "devil's knell" twelve times.  Once the twelfth chime is rung and dies away, three to five groups of handbell ringers, each stationed around the sanctuary (with perhaps one on the balcony), begin to play peals in C major (without damping) until all the groups are ringing at once.  At this point, the organist plays "Joy to the World" in C Major with full organ as the bells continue to play the peals as strongly as possible. The ringers (on cue) stop playing the peals and damp all bells except C, G, and E on the last line of the last verse so that when the singing finishes, the only bells to continue resonating are those notes within the C Major tonic triad. As the minister immediately pronounces the benediction, the C Major chord dies away and the Postlude begins.

Group A Group B Group C Group D Group E
1. C4 C5 C5 C6 C6 C7 C3 C4 C7 C8
2. B4 A4 B5 A5 B6 A6 B3 A3 B7 A7
3. G4 F4 G5 F5 G6 F6 G3 F3 G7 F7
4. E4 D4 E5 D5 E6 D6 E3 D3 E7 D7
(4 ringers) (4 ringers) (4 ringers) (2 ringers/mallets) (4 ringers)

Note that duplicate C's are needed, perhaps borrowed from other bell choirs in the community. The peals should sound in this order: 1-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1 and repeating, ad lib, each group at a different tempo.

Five Octave Choirs:
Only two ringers are needed to ring the bells in Group D. This can be accomplished by suspending the bells and ringing them with 4 mallets (one in each hand).  Most churches are fortunate to have a carpenter or wood-working hobbyist who can construct a unique frame on which the bells can be suspended. It is imperative that the bells do not swing with struck by mallets.

To ring these low bells by hand for the length of the hymn wears out ringers very quickly.  Since their wrists give out, it is impossible for the ringers to achieve a strong dynamic level after about ten peals. This problem is alleviated with the use of suspended bells and mallets.

How to begin the peals:
Once the twelfth chime is run and dies away (as explained above), Group A beings to peal the bells at any chosen tempo (Ringer #1 determines the tempo).  Group B follows (different tempo) after Group A has pealed for approximately ten seconds.  Finally, Group C follows group B in the same manner.

Five octave choirs use the same method.  Start however, with Group D and follow thereafter (in the same manner as above) with groups A, B, C and E, in order.

The object of starting each group in ten second intervals is to build the sound gradually with increasing volume and bells.  Do not damp the bells while pealing.  The expectancy of Christmas morning and the birth of Christ is thus exemplified, culminating with the singing of "Joy to the World, the Lord has come!"

Other Notes:
1. It is extremely important the the ringers stop playing on the last line of the last verse (explained above).  Since the ringers become mesmerized by the sound of their own pealing bells and are concentrating on allowing the bells to peal in a smooth, uninterrupted pattern, it is virtually impossible for them to hear much of the singing. Therefore, it is suggested that four members of the congregation be stationed at each corner of the sanctuary to discreetly raise their hand on the last line of the last verse so Ringer #1 (playing the two C's) can see the signal, stop the peal and in turn, give a cue to his/her group to damp all bells except C, E and G.  If Group D is in the balcony, a fifth member of the congregation will be needed.
2. To begin the Ringing-In of Christmas morning, each group of ringers should enter the sanctuary as quietly as possible during the striking of the "devil's knell."
3. If the Ringing-In of Christmas morning follows a candlelighting ceremony, it will be necessary to work out logistics with the ushers so that sanctuary lights can be raised (about half-way) during the singing of Joy to the World.  Candles should be extinguished during the Ringing-In since it is dangerous to manipulate hymnals and candles at the same time.

We would like to publicly thank and gratefully acknowledge Dr. William Payn for graciously granting permission to reprint his "The Ringing-In of Christmas Morning." Thank You, Dr. Payn.