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By Eric Shackle

Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way.... Mention Christmas bells to Australians, and we think of beautiful red and yellow native flowers which were shown on a five-cent stamp back in 1967. But if you mention the Christmas bell to the good folk of the small English town of Dewsbury, in Yorkshire, they must think of the bell in their church, Dewsbury Minster, and wonder whether it will ever stop chiming. Every Christmas Eve it sounds the Devil's Knell for more than two hours.

Observing a 600-year-old custom, two or three sturdy bellringers sound the bell once for every year since Christ's birth, supposedly to mark the Devil's departure from Earth. That means that this year, the bell will chime exactly 2001 times.

"The Devil`s Knell will be tolled from approximately 9.45pm on Christmas Eve, to finish on the stroke of midnight," said Canon John Hawley, Team Rector of Dewsbury, in response to our e-mail inquiry.

"In the 15th century a local knight, Sir Thomas de Soothill, in a fit of rage murdered a servant boy by throwing him into a mill pond. To expiate his crime he gave the tenor bell, Black Tom, requiring it to be tolled at his own funeral. It is now rung on Christmas Eve to signifiy that the First Eucharist of Christmas proclaims the defeat of evil."

The Dewsbury bell, like the Australian Christmas bell, appeared on a postage stamp, in 1986.

When Americans hear about Christmas bells, they probably think of hundreds of ho-hoing white-bearded fat men dressed in red, waving handbells at passers-by, and seeking donations. And once again, stamps come into the picture (but no bell). The U.S. Postal Service has issued a particularly interesting block of four stamps for Christmas 2001. They are pictured HERE. 

The USPS says "The Santas pictured upper left and lower right probably date from the 1880s. They may have been designed in England and printed in Germany. People may have purchased these images and placed them in keepsake scrapbooks. The Santas pictured upper right and lower left were printed in Germany and probably date between 1915 and 1920. Santas such as these may have been used to decorate lebkuchen, a traditional German cookie."

FINAL THOUGHT. Two types of bell are no longer heard: the fire bell, replaced long ago by the wailing siren, and the most-heard Christmas bell of all, that of the cash register All you hear now is a pitiful electronic beep.

Copyright 2001   Eric Shackle   Story first posted December 2001

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