The season of Christmastide is rife with superstition and folklore. Persons born on Christmas will become vampires (or, some say, merely miserable adults). On Christmas Eve the beasts kneel in their stables, animals can speak, and the Holy Thorn blossoms. The procession of the dead of the parish for the coming year may be seen if you sit in the church porch, burning elder wood will reveal to you all the witches in the neighbourhood, and if you steal anything at Christmas without being caught, you can steal safely for a year. Handy tips, to be sure!
But one of the most pervasive beliefs about Christmas had to do with the mysterious sound of bells. Unless you have lived in a cloistered monastery, you can have no conception of the role bells played in the daily life of the people of the British Isles from the Middle Ages onward. Bells were rung multiple times daily to mark the canonical hours and for saints’ days. Even after the Reformation, church bells or clock chimes marked the hours and were rung for festivals and for funerals. Villagers knew the sound of their own bells and sailors and soldiers dying far from home often said that they heard the bells of their church chiming. Christmas was a time for the practice of that peculiarly English art of change-ringing and ringers would try for peal and quarter-peal records.
So perhaps it is no wonder that Christmas was the time of year when the bells of long-lost villages and submerged churches could be heard.
Listening to the Chimes of Churches Destroyed Years Ago.
Many legends of bells under ground and under water are known in various parts of England. Where the churches are said to have been swallowed up either by earthquake or the ravages of the sea the old church-bells are believed still to ring. Oftentimes, on certain occasions, such as Christmas, people go forth and put their ears to the ground, in the expectation of catching the music of the mysterious chimes, deep, deep in the earth. Thus, nearly Realeigh, in Nottinghamshire, there is a valley, reported to have been caused by an earthquake several hundred years ago, which swallowed up the whole village together with the church. Formerly it was customary for the people to assemble in this valley every Christmas Day to listen to the ringing of the bells of the church beneath them. This, it was positively stated, might be heard by placing the ear to the ground and harkening attentively. What, however, the village really heard was the ringing of the bells of a neighbouring church, the sound of which was communicated by the surface of the ground.
On the sands, near Blackpool, far out at sea, once stood the church and cemetery of Kilgrimal, long ago submerged. Wanderers traveling near this spot were said from time to time to have been terrified by the melancholy and dismal chimes of the bells pealing over the murmuring sea. At Crosmere, near Ellesmere, Shropshire, where there is one of a number of pretty lakes scattered throughout that district, there is a tradition of a chapel having formerly stood on the banks of the lake. According to a superstitious belief once prevalent, whenever the waters were ruffled by the wind the chapel bells might be heard ringing beneath the surface. There is a similar tradition associated with the Fishery Brown, near Kirkby Lonsdale. In this neighbourhood there is a sort of natural hollow scooped out, which the inhabitants show as the spot where in days gone by a church, pastor, and all the people in it, were swallowed up. Every Sunday morning, it is said, any one who doubts the truth of this tradition may put his ear to the ground and hear the bell ring for service.
In a little book, entitled “Christmas: Its History and Antiquity,” (1850) the writer says: “In Berkshire it is confidently asserted that if any one watches on Christmas Eve, he will hear subterranean bells. In the mining districts the workmen declare that at this sacred season high mass is performed with the greatest solemnity on that evening in the mine which contains the most valuable lode of ore, which is supernaturally lighted up with candles in the most brilliant manner, and the service is chanted by unseen choristers.” Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 29 January 1881: p. 11 [The material in this article has been drawn from a variety of British antiquarian journals.]
Most underground/underwater bells tell stories of natural disasters overwhelming churches. The story from Berkshire offers an intriguing suggestion of recusants celebrating a clandestine mass. Are the buried/submerged bells a memory of church bells hidden during the Reformation?
One could compile a gazetteer of subterranean and subaqueous bells, although not all of them are heard on Christmas. Most can only be heard under certain circumstances or periodicity, like the bells of the sunken city of Ys, heard in calm weather, and at Romford, where the old church, dedicated to St. Andrew, was destroyed in the 15th century, but where, on St. Andrew’s Day, the church’s bells are still heard.
Naturally there are killjoys who maintain that these bell traditions can be explained by the mis-hearing of bells from adjoining parishes, or a trick of the ear, like hearing the sound of the sea in a shell. To be fair, when every parish was going ding-dong, merrily on high, the sound of bells would have been hard to avoid. So why the tradition of Christmas bells under earth or water?
Could the subterranean bell tradition can be explained by fairy lore? The sounds of fairy bells floating up from fairy mounds to mystify, terrify or tempt the lone traveler are a commonplace of 19th-century fairy stories and poetry, but I’m having trouble finding any earlier references to bells and fairies. There is a slight fairy/Christmas connection (fairy plays at Christmas and fairy dolls, rather than angels, atop the tree), but again, it is something from the late 19th century.
Just as few fairy traditions came to this country, there seem to be no underground bell tales in the United States. (We have mystery booms and hums and ringing rocks, but no bells, which some might say is a stinging comment on the decay of traditional religious practices.) Still, if the weather cooperates, I may experiment with a paper cup to the ground in the backyard this Christmas Eve.
Thoughts on fairies, bells, or Christmas? Chime in at Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com.
Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com.