[Originally published December 23, 2011.]
Q. When did jingle bells originate?
A. Jingle bells predate human history by millions of years, tracing their origins back to small rocks that the dinosaurs swallowed in order to produce tinkling sounds in their stomachs during mating season. No one has ever figured out what these sounds added to the experience of having sex with a 50-ton lizard, but who are we to judge?
Q. When did humans first use them?
A. Early humans also swallowed rocks, mainly because they didn’t know any better. Once people figured out the difference between rocks and edible objects, the practice declined in popularity; it is now limited to a few nomadic tribes and the occasional Delta Tau Delta pledge.
Q. How did livestock become associated with bells?
A. Humans have used bell-like tools since the Mesolithic period, when rocks were hung around the necks of domesticated goats to make the animals easier to find. Initially, this worked because the rocks were very heavy and pinned the creatures to the ground neck-first. Gradual technological refinements resulted in smaller neck-stones that would rattle together and provide audible evidence of the animal’s movements; during the Bronze Age, these finally evolved into true bells.
Q. Who started the custom of putting bells on sleighs?
A. The modern sleigh, or “jingle,” bell was invented in 1632 by Hans Jengelen, a Dutch buttonmaker living in exile in Germany due to a dispute with Holland’s politically influential Buttonmakers’ Guild. Searching for a practical way to speed the transport of buttons to market during winter, Jengelen hit upon the idea of attaching noisemakers to the official German Button-sleds, or Knopfschlittern, so other conveyances would hear them approaching and clear the roadway.
Jengelen first proposed using caged parrots for this purpose, until the difficulty of keeping tropical birds alive during an Alpine winter was pointed out to him. He experimented briefly with KreischendesSchwein (Bavarian Shrieking Pigs), but after limited success and the loss of several toes, he realized that some form of “shrieking button,” which could be attached to the sleigh harness, would serve his purpose equally well, and moreover would not try to eat the horses pulling the sleigh (KnopfschlitternPferd).
Q. What are some of the more charming traditions and superstitions associated with jingle bells?
A. The sound of jingle bells is traditionally believed to ward off bad luck and evil spirits. Depending on the remoteness of the region and the level of inbreeding among the populace, jingle bells may also be credited with attracting meteorites, curing wooden tongue, and preventing turnip blight. In some areas of France, such bells are believed to cause the tails of otters to grow. In Portugal, they are thought to promote fertility in poultry of all kinds. Westfalians believe that by ringing sleighbells, one communicates directly with St. Philologus of Sinope. And Belgian tradition holds that the first sleighbell chime of December heralds the advent of Dietger, the Gaily-Clad King of Winter, and his Splendiferous Ice Court.
Q. And what of the more dark and cryptic elements of jingle bell history? Do they exist?
A. They do indeed. In fact, jingle bells have a sordid, arcane history, intertwined with some of the worst episodes in human history. Really, they’re much more interesting than all those fucking carols would lead to you expect.
During the Crusades, for example, The Knights Templar would hang a small bell from their lances each time they killed an infidel. Sir William de Harcourt, who fought at the Siege of Damietta in 1218, is rumored to have acquired more than 3,000 bells this way.
Q. Was he overcompensating?
Q. What other sinister associations do jingle bells have?
A. Plenty, but before we can tell you about them, you’ll have to hand over a pint of your own blood and show us your secret tattoo.
Q. How did sleigh bells become so closely linked to holiday celebrations?
A. Sleigh bells were originally employed at Yuletide to give advance warning of visiting family members. Hearing the distant jingle that proclaimed the approach of guests, people had ample time to run out into the snow and die of exposure if they preferred.
Then Currier and Ives started churning out lithographs of bell-laden horses dashing along with sleighs full of merry, holiday-making idiots, and it kind of became a thing.
Q. Do horses enjoy the sound of jingle bells?
A. While they prefer them to the sound of Bavarian Shrieking Pigs, it is an established fact that jingle bells actually irritate the living hell out of horses.
Q. Then why do sleigh owners keep using them?
A. Because people are assholes.
Q. How will mankind employ jingle bells in years to come?
A. In the future, jingle bells will be solemnly rung at the funerals of puppeteers. Doctors will prescribe them (unsuccessfully) to treat melancholy. During the next Ice Age, jingle bells will provide the accompaniment for soloists in Portuguese Frost Operas. Street urchins will use them to send signals across toxin-filled alleyways during the New Jersey Apartment Wars, and peasants will barter them for root vegetables in the early years of the Great Inter-Planetary Famine.
But for the next hundred years or so, they will mainly be used by street-corner Santas to mark their territory.