The other day, my husband and I happened across a Russian food and crafts bazaar in an orthodox Cathedral in Seattle. Over a bowl of delicious borshch and a steaming pirogue filled with spicy beef I suddenly choked. There was distinct chiming overhead, not of one, no, of various church bells. To a European like me this is a sound from home.
Basically, I cannot imagine Germany without the daily sound of bells. Town halls over there have bells, too, but most of them play folksongs and other worldly pieces (and to my ears they mostly sound painfully out of tune). Church bells are something totally different – and they were pretty much the first thing I missed when coming over here.
Sundays here are business as usual sound-wise. Over in Germany, they are special. Most German cities, except spa towns, have strict opening and closing times for businesses. Sundays are very, very quiet, as almost everything is closed. Activities such as lawn mowing are prohibited as well. Even agriculture usually tries to keep Sunday rest, unless they have to work to not endanger the harvest. Therefore, imagine the impact of even so much as a single church bell! Half an hour before church service, you hear the chapel call usually performed by a smaller force of bells in the belfries. Five minutes before the beginning of service, you will be able to hear the full peal of bells. And not just of one church. But of all the surrounding churches that start their services at the same time. It’s a feast of rich sounds, not like the Big Ben peal, but something way more insisting. A single bell always sets in after the very first line of the Lord’s Prayer during church service.
I used to live in hearing distance of neighborhood churches almost all of my life. It never disturbed me. Neither did the quarter-hourly and hourly clock chimes that are a tradition transmitted from the Medieval Ages (back then, the bells also served as an alarm for fire, pest, or impeding war). After a while, you simply get so used to bell chimes you don’t even hear them anymore. But you miss them immediately once they are under repair.
German farmers markets are often started on the chime of a bell, and they close on its sound some hours later. Noon is marked by a full peal – originally the lunch break hour for farm and trade workers. You know when somebody has a memorial service at the cemetery that day, as the funeral bell chimes in the morning. Saturday afternoon chiming means that somebody is getting married at that church. Prayer bells at six in the evening were the sign for kids to go home for dinner for a long time (I have my doubts they are that still). Saturday evening full peals welcome in Sunday.
Church bells have been subdividing European lives for centuries. They have been used for messages, celebrations, warning, and mourning. Most Germans today might not even be aware of their meaning anymore, as our world gets more and more secular and/or multi-cultural. Church bells have secular as well as religious purposes.
One of the most touching and almost overwhelming moments, by the way, is always right at midnight of New Year’s Eve. After the hourly chime, each and every bell of each and every chapel, church, and cathedral all across the nation suddenly bursts into an incredibly joyful and celebratory peal to greet the New Year. It doesn’t matter whether you interpret this as a worldly or as a religious symbol. Everybody knows it’s signifying the beginning of a new year.
When I heard the silvery peal of the bells of Saint Spiridon Orthodox Cathedral in Seattle that afternoon, it felt like a greeting from my past. For a moment I stopped chewing and just listened. Then the clinking of spoons against china bowls and the humming of quiet conversation drowned them out again. The moment was over. But the memory still chimes.