Jingle All the Way
Sleigh bells recall the sound of horses carrying passengers through the snow.
A framed black-and-white photograph of two grazing horses hangs on an upstairs wall in a century home in Hudson. At the bottom of the photo are the handwritten words: “Nellie and Fannie 1938.” The horses belonged to the family of 92-year-old Jane Caniglia, whose great-grandfather built the 1820 Summit County house she shares with her daughter.
“We used sleigh bells with these horses. The bell straps were attached to the harness,” recalls Caniglia. “The bells weren’t used on a fancy sleigh, but on working, heavy wooden sleighs. You could take all the kids on rides in them.”
Those happy memories of sleigh-riding on the farm and going to town are preserved in Caniglia’s faded photograph and in her collection of sleigh bells. About 30 leather straps, each about 5 to 8 feet long and with attached bells, hang on an entranceway wall in her home. It is a mini-museum for vintage sleigh bells.
Caniglia says her favorites are the ones owned by her grandparents and parents. Those are the ones that Nellie and Fannie and other horses proudly wore. All the straps feature brass bells and some are finely etched and decorated.
“I collected bells from our farm, and then started going to antique stores and estate sales for others. A few I bought in Europe,” says Caniglia. “We oil the straps and take care of them. The real old ones deteriorate, though, and we have to buy new leather to reattach the bells. Once they get to be about 150 years, they start to show age. My son Stanley [Caniglia] plans to work on some of them this winter, re-stringing them.”
Caniglia describes sleigh bells as “jewelry for the horses — the more you had the better, and they made a louder sound.” She favors the older bells because “they have a prettier tone,” but all sound slightly different. Some lightly tinkle and others have a hearty jingle jangle.
“On Christmas Eve when we were little, my father would put sleigh bells in a basket. When we heard them at night, we thought for sure it was Santa Claus,” recalls Caniglia.
Caniglia is finished collecting. “Just how many can you have — we have no more wall space,” she points out. But she enjoys seeing the bells every time she leaves or enters her home. Her three grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren also enjoy the bells and have a typical kid’s way of showing it.
“Every time they come over, they hit the bells as they walk by them,” says Caniglia, who doesn’t mind at all.
Technically, most of the jingling from Caniglia’s straps is not done by “bells,” but by rattles called “crotals.” The hollow objects have slits that enclose a hard pellet that makes sound when shaken. A bell is open with a swinging clapper. But who is going to argue with two of the season’s most popular tunes, “Jingle Bells” or the line “sleigh bells ring, are you listening” from “Winter Wonderland”?
Don Livingston of Lower Burrell, Pennsylvania, is also a horse bell collector and bell historian. Livingston’s collection of 300 horse bell items includes saddle bells, rump bells and bells used on sleighs and carriages. The origin of using bells with animals (horses, camels donkeys, goats and elephants) can be traced to the first time man began shaping metal.
“Bells have been around in America since the 1700s,” says Livingston. “Most were made in New England. In wintertime you can’t back up a sleigh. When you were out at night or coming to an intersection in the road, you would listen for sleigh bells. You would wait until the sleigh was safely past before you started out again. Neighbors could also tell who was going to town because sleigh bells do not all sound the same.”
(Sleigh and carriage bells have also been used for good luck. The belief carries over to today with some motorcyclists attaching a small bell to their saddlebags or handlebars to ward off “road demons.”)
Livingston also made leather components for bells until 2007 when he sold his business, Bells and Sleigh Bells, to Weaver Leather in Mt. Hope, Ohio. Today the wholesale company sells its sleigh bell straps and sleigh bell door hangers to many retailers, including Lehman’s Hardware in Kidron, River Ridge Leather in Columbus, Byler’s Harness Shop in Middlefield and Crimson Chain in Toledo. The imported bells (solid brass, chrome-plated, brass-plated or chrome brass) are attached to leather that is cut, dyed and punched for holes, according to senior advisor Myron Stutzman, the company’s first employee.
According to manufacturing manager Jason Weaver — grandson of Harry A. Weaver, who founded the company in 1973 — jingle bells have found a new generation of admirers among those who have read the charming children’s book Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg or who have seen the movie of the same name.
Weaver Leather makes about 35 different bell products, including an impressive 5-foot-long Double Row Bell Strap that “really sounds like Christmas,” according to Weaver.
Although it never mentions the holiday, one of the most famous of all Christmas carols is “Jingle Bells” (originally titled “One Horse Open Sleigh”). Exactly when and where the song was penned (some say Massachusetts, others say Georgia) is unclear. But we know it was organist and Pastor James Pierpont whom we have to thank.
Stan Hywet Hall & Garden’s education director, Toivo Motter, says the song was published in 1857. Motter will present a family program, “Jingle Bells: Behind the Christmas Music,” Dec. 6, at the historic estate in Akron (stanhywet.org).
There are several versions of the song, including a wildly popular Bing Crosby rendition and a novelty version with barking dogs recorded in 1955. The song also has an original verse or two that are rarely sung and which were considered racy for the day.
“‘Jingle Bells was like the songs in the ’50s and ’60s about driving fast in your car and picking up chicks. Only it was a horse and sleigh,” says Motter.