13 April 2009

A Mystery Solved.

Since about the beginning of the sixteenth century and perhaps long before then church bells of one kind or another have been used for communication. We tend to think of the ringing of big bronze bells as a church function but bells have served civic and military functions as well. In the United States a meeting house bell in Philadelphia proclaimed liberty throughout the land and to all the inhabitants thereof and in Mexico the fight for independence from Spain began on Sept. 16, 1810, in the small town of Dolores with the ringing of church bells. Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, a Catholic priest, rang the bells to summon people to begin the struggle with the “Grito de Dolores”, or "Cry of Dolores". Anyone who has ever glanced aloft at the church towers in Mexico has no doubt noticed the size and variety of bells and wondered why so many and what they were all used for. Of course the primary use of bells was to announce the hour of church services but the bells were also used to communicate the time, what feast day it was, the nature of the mass, whether a sermon would be preached and many other details. In fact the person who rang the bells had an important job and it took quite a bit of training to get it right. As time went by some of the functions of the bells fell by the wayside due to the high cost of maintenance and lower cost and increased availability of modern clocks and watches and various other forms of communication but nevertheless we still listened for the bells. When I was a kid growing up in Logan Square in Chicago we always had to be home by eight in the evening when the bells at St. Joseph's Home for the Aged rang for Vespers, the evening prayer.

Nowadays most of the old bells in the church towers are silent except for the one bell that still calls people to church. You can usually identify it by a thick old rope running from the bell and down the side of the building with which someone rings the bell. In the Village of García, in Nuevo León where I first came to live, either the sacristan or one of the altar boys would ring the big bell before mass. There was a mass at ten-thirty on Sunday mornings and then in the late afternoon there was another mass at six. At one half hour before each mass the bell would ring once, and then there would be a pause. After the pause the bell would ring continuously about twenty times and after another pause it would again be rung once. At about fifteen minutes before the start of the mass the bell would ring again. This time it would ring twice, and then a pause, and then around twenty more times before pausing a moment followed by two rings. When the mass began the bell rang again only this time it rang three times, and then a pause, etc. Being a bit compulsive I began counting the number of rings between pauses Sometimes there were only seventeen or eighteen and sometimes there were as many as twenty-three. I began trying to figure out the significance of the numbers (I get this from my mother).

Since I lived right next door to the bell it was pretty hard for me to ignore it and I began to record the number of times in sequence that it was rung. I was trying to discover some kind of pattern or code. It became an obsession and it started to drive me crazy. By the time that I had learned enough Spanish for basic verbal communication I herded the sacristans and the altar boys together and asked them to tell me all about the code of the bells. I tried to explain myself in various ways in my limited Spanish but the only reaction I got was blank stares. Finally one of them said, “Señor Bob, the bells are to call the people to church for mass”. “Yes”, I said, “Of course, but what is the significance of the number of times you ring the bell in between the pauses?”. There were more blank stares. Finally one of them said, “We don't know. Nobody ever asked us that before. We just pull the rope until it seems like enough or until our arms get tired”. I said, “I think that you should pull the rope the same amount each time”. The young man replied, “Why Señor Bob,? You are the first person who ever counted”. I would like to end this story by saying “And from that day forward in the Village of García the bells were always rung exactly the same way”. Yeah, right! What a letdown. About the only conclusion that I could draw from this exercise was that the number of times the bell is rung is directly proportional to the size and strength (and boredom) of the bell ringer. This myth is busted!


glorv1 said...

Bob, you'd be a good bell ringer. Do you know why? Because you count really good.:D
great post and by the way, are you following Steve's trek? It is so exciting. I worry about Mr. Jiggs, though. Have a great weekend.

Bob Mrotek said...

I worry about Mr. Jiggs too, Gloria. It must be a hard journey for him. That is probably why Steve is in a hurry. I love dogs. There is a myth in Mexico that when you die your dogs will be there to help you cross over to the other side. You can read about it here:

Babs said...

Hi Bob - LOVE this blog - I have tried for years to figure out why the number of times the bells ring is never the same.
I love the days when they ring for hours - since I think we have 23 churches and I live up on a high hill, the sound is so beautiful. On Good Friday they rang at all the churches from 12 to 3 and this morning they rang for a long, long, time. NOT sure what today is.
When the Pope died, they rang all day long - non-stop. It was very, very touching.
It is one of the things I miss the most when I go to the US.

Suzanne said...

I'm always trying to figure out the method they come up for ringing the church bells here in San Miguel.

One night about 5 years ago, I was visiting my daughter and a friend who grew up here. We were out at 3am (highly unusual for me) but antonio gave me one of the keys to the bell ringing at the parroquia.

First, there is a bell with a slightly higher sound than the normal bell which, has a distinct 'ding-dong' which is followed by a short pause, then by the specific number of rings for the hour.

so, on the 15 minute ring, it goes with the high bell first - ding -dong - then the actual hour, which has a lower bell. Then at the half hour it goes -'ding-dong' ... 'ding dong... twice, then whatever the hour is. The same for 45 minutes after the hour - except three ding dongs, separted by a short pause, then whatever the hour is. At the hour, it goes 'ding-dong' four times, then the new hour.

I think I explained that right - maybe it's one ding dong at the top of the hour and four at the 45 minute, but you get the idea. At any rate, one of the functions is the time of day, and if you listen carefully for one hour in the Jardin, you will see that this works exactly right every time and you can actually know what time of day it is.

Of course there's a big clock in the tower next to the church, which works also.

As for all the other churches, the bell ringing is still a mystery to me.

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I was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois, U.S.A. I have been living in Mexico since January 6th, 1999. I am continually studying to improve my knowledge of the Spanish language and Mexican history and culture. I am also a student of Mandarin Chinese.