Bells have become an integral part of our Christmas tradition. The ringing of bells, I have read, can be traced back to pagan winter celebrations. Centuries ago people used noisemakers including bells to scare away evil spirits at night.
Over the years, the ringing of bells became a more positive activity and bells have been rung to call people to worship, to weddings, for warnings and to make announcements.
Bells are rung during the Christmas season to announce the birth of the Christ child. So it is that we have songs like I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.
Possessing a twisted sense of humor, when I think of bells I don't always think of Christmas. Sometimes a discussion of bells reminds me of a now deceased coworker from nearly 40 years ago.
My wife and I moved to Sioux City nearly 40 years ago when I took a job at a radio station there. One of my colleagues was a talented veteran broadcaster. I'll call him Pete, which isn't his real name.
Pete was one of the most creative guys I have ever worked with. He was also uptight, reminding me of the Felix Ungar character from the Odd Couple Broadway play and television series.
In an office conversation one morning he told us that at his house he had a little bell on a table next to his easy chair. Whenever he wanted something, he said, he rang the little bell and his wife came running to determine his need. If he wanted a soda or a beer, his wife would fetch a soda or beer. If he wanted a snack, she would bring him a snack.
I had been married less than five years at this point and was surprised that a wife would really do that. When I told my wife about Pete's little bell she politely but firmly warned me to not even think about bringing home a bell of my own.
Sadly, Pete had a serious alcohol addiction. He left the radio station about the time I did, divorced his wife and moved to another state where he died a few years later.
It was a few years after Pete moved away when a colleague recommended a tax preparer. Upon my first visit with the tax preparer I learned that she was the ex-wife of my former coworker, Pete. (For purposes of this recollection, I will call her Betty.) She spoke kindly about Pete but said his addiction made marriage impossible.
Even though we left Sioux City 25 years ago Betty continued to prepare our taxes until her unexpected death two years ago, using e-mail, snail mail and the phone to communicate.
Several years ago I was discussing taxes with Betty in person when she brought up her late ex-husband. I had always wanted to ask her about the little bell Pete told us about many years earlier. Having known Betty for a number of years now, I cranked up my courage.
"Betty," I began, "I have to ask you about something Pete told me when we worked together."
"Go ahead," she said.
"Well, Pete told us at the office one morning that he had this little bell"
Betty got red in the face and interrupted me.
"Did he tell you that I waited on him whenever he rang that stupid bell?" she demanded.
I was afraid that I may have stepped into a matrimonial cow pie.
"Here's the truth," she said emphatically. "He tried that one time. Just one time! He rang that stupid bell and when I asked him what the bell was for he asked me to bring him a beer."
Betty took a deep breath.
"I told him that if he ever rang that stupid bell at me again I would grab it and shove it"
Betty was a lady and stopped short of identifying her intended destination for the bell.
I laughed and said, "Yeah, when I told my wife about Pete's little bell she sort of headed in that direction, too!"
Betty cooled down and we had a good laugh about the bell and a conversation about a brilliant life sadly ended by an addiction to alcohol.
So it is that when I hear bells I don't always think of Christmas but sometimes of a long ago colleague and his story about his personal bell.