While we love to hear the jingle, jingle, jingle of sleigh bells, their use remains as utilitarian as they are adornment. They’re meant to warn of an approaching horse-drawn vehicle, whether carried by wheels, skids or runners.
Made in large quantities in East Hampton, Conn., during the nineteenth century, sleigh bells became a popular addition to tack courtesy of the popular Christmas tune “Jingle Bells”. Composer James Pierpont made it romantic and comforting to think of taking a ride in a “one horse open sleigh … making spirits bright.”
It’s likely no other seasonal song or phrase invokes more of a sense of a picturesque Norman Rockwell-style wintery scene. The landscape is cloaked in a white layer of fluff. Down the country lane trots a horse, or perhaps a team of two, pulling an open sleigh lined with thick blankets for wrapping up in to ward off the brisk chill in the air. The rhythmic gait of the animals is matched and enhanced only by the sound of … sleigh bells!
Today sleigh bells are most-often associated with Victorian horse-drawn carriages and scenes made famous by New England artists. The truth is, bells used to adorn and enhance harnesses date back to Medieval military equestrians. Called “crotals”, the early bells were thought to ward off evil spirits and bring good luck.
Sometime in history, harness bells went from single adornments to strings of the metal chimes. It’s been reported that archeologists have unearthed sets of leather-mounted bells in England ranging back at least a thousand years. All indications are the bells represented status and financial standing.
At our house we have a set of sleigh bells which hang on our kitchen door. Winter guests are greeted by the cheery sound of the bells when they walk into the warm house. Grandpa had similar strings of the bells on leather straps attached to some of the harnesses which hung in his low-slung horse barns. While he usually used hay wagons and a buckboard around the farm, he also had a sled for winter work and to take groups of grandkids on rides when the weather turned foul. On those rides he’d always be sure to use the harnesses with the sleigh bells.
To this day every time I hear someone open or close our kitchen door during the winter season my mind turns to riding with Grandpa in his sled up and down the lanes which bisected the farm on snowy days.