As I’ve previously mentioned, I’m working these days as a carriage driver, and with the holiday season in full swing, I’ve been looking for ways to trick out my horse and carriage. These days I’m feeling like Christmas trees are completely passé and if you’re looking for some true thrills in holiday decorating, you need to look into the art and science of attempting to decorate a live animal. It’s a little complicated when you consider that the thing you’re decorating will likely do its best to eat your decorations, but you also have to contend with the possibility (okay, high probability) of blizzard conditions or just general moisture followed by sub-zero temperatures for hours on end. Your average decorations probably just aren’t going to hold up.
Our carriage company does most of the actual decorating of vehicles — and particularly for us new drivers, we never know which carriage we’re going to end up driving anyway, so it’s best not to get too invested — but drivers can help boost their business with a little bling. The veteran drivers all an incredible assortment of decorating tricks (Scooter’s Santa dummy, mounted over his horse’s back, is a hit with the kids while simultaneously giving me the willies) but for my part I mostly intend to spend my hard-earned cash on endless layers of thermals, snow pants, rain gear and chemical toe-warmers. Still, I’d like to have a little something to dress up the horses I’ll be driving for the occasion, so I have a few strings of battery-operated lights and I’ve been looking into sleigh bells.
I bought a few bags of craft-store bells that I’ll be giving a go, though I’d be kind of surprised if they lasted longer than a week. And because I like to live in a land of delusion, I also searched the Internet for real harness bells. I found quite a few places still producing beautiful, high-quality bells of all kinds for use on harnesses (I will take one of each, please), but alas, poverty and other priorities prevent me from actually purchasing any.
My quest did yield a potential origin for an interesting idiom, however. (That’s what I love about the Internet: you might be just shopping for something, but you learn some vocab instead.) You’ve probably heard the phrase “I’ll be there with bells on,” and it’s generally accepted to mean, “I will be attending the aforementioned function in my finest of finery.” Presumably there was a point in time where one might attend a party with literal bells on. (In the UK apparently the equivalent phrase is “with knobs on” instead, but honestly, I don’t want to even know what knobs are. If anyone tells me I will hear it in Graham Norton’s voice and all seriousness will be gone from this conversation.)
One possible origin of the phrase, however, comes from the days of horsedrawn transportation, when bells were often worn on a horse’s harness not just for the holiday festiveness of it but to ensure that other travelers on the road could hear you coming. If a partygoer arrived “with bells on,” it meant that they arrived safely having suffered no collisions or misfortunes. Or, somewhat more mundanely and assuming that everybody back then didn’t travel around with a large cacophony of bells at all times, simply that carriage horses were outfitted with bells for particularly festive occasions, the same way a partygoer would dress themselves to the nines for a special event.
The Phrase Finder offers an even more charming and detailed possible explanation for the idiom:
The settlement of US immigrants in Pennsylvania and other states. Their preferred means of transport were large, sturdy wooden carts, called Conestoga wagons. These were drawn by teams of horses or mules whose collars were fitted with headdresses of bells. George Stumway, in Conestoga Wagon 1750-1850, states that the wagoners personalised the bells to tunings of their liking and took great pride in them. If a wagon became stuck, a teamster who came to the rescue often asked for a set of bells as reward. Arriving at a destination without one’s bells hurt a driver’s professional pride, whereas getting there ‘with bells on’ was a source of satisfaction.
As I’m sure you can imagine, I will forthwith be demanding a set of bells as payment every time I perform a favor for a fellow motorist. Should’ve made the demand of the last person I gave a jumpstart to. “No sir, I shall not furnish forth the jumper cables until you reward me with bells! I demand that they be gleaming, sir! Gleaming!”
Of course, the phrase is pretty antiquated either way, but as a person who drives a horse and carriage, I suppose I can’t really point the finger at anything for being old-fashioned. If you’re more into the modern conveniences and highfalutin technology, perhaps you should take Nathan Bradley’s advice and replace “with bells on” with the much more practical “with sandwich in tow.” I think it could be the next big thing. As for myself, I’m now experiencing an intense urge to research the etymology of the word “highfalutin.” So maybe it’s best to just leave things there.