By Dan Murphy
A Beacon Hill tradition was born 92 years ago when Margaret Nichols Shurcliff first led a group of handbell-ringers on Christmas Eve, caroling and regaling neighbors with their jingling holiday melodies.
“By 1924, our children were able to ring (the youngest was then 9) and on Christmas Eve, we started our carol ringing standing in the front yard of 55 Mt. Vernon St. Our success surprised us. The crowd grew and grew and applauded as loudly as they could, their hands muffled by woolen gloves,” Shurcliff wrote in her memoir “Lively Days.”
Shurcliff, the daughter of Dr. Arthur Howard Nichols, a prominent Boston physician and also an accomplished hand-bell ringer, was raised at 55. Mt. Vernon St., which is currently home to the Nichols House Museum. She received her first handbell-ringing lesson in 1900 and set her first bell-ringing record in England two years later at age 23, when she “became the first American to ring a full peal of changes (a three-hour ordeal) on English church bells.” Shurcliff joined a group of fellow hand-bell enthusiasts 40 years later for their inaugural Christmas Eve jaunt, and soon afterwards, the group dubbed themselves the “Beacon Hill Bell Ringers.”
Today, Pamela Madigan serves as coordinator of the present incarnation of the Bell Ringers. Her mother Mary Jane Sawyer inherited the reins from Margaret Shurcliff grandson, Arthur Shurcliff, helping to carry on the Christmas Eve tradition from 1950s until her death in 2014, at which time Madigan seized the torch.
“The people on Beacon Hill know how to celebrate Christmas Eve, and it’s very special,” said Madigan, who first participated in the holiday tradition as a child. “It’s one of the most spiritual things you’ll experience all year.”
On Christmas Eve at 8 p.m., on the steps outside of 3 Louisburg Square, Madigan will perform alongside her fellow Ringers daughter Victoria Madigan, Robert Johnson and Charles Gibson, as well as Griff Gall – a “guest ringer” from the Back Bay Ringers, another hand-bell ensemble inspired by Margaret Shurcliff.
Besides “St. Paul’s Steeple” – the traditional opening and closing peal inspired by the change ringers at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London – their 45-minute performance is set to include “Joy to the World,” “The First Noel,” O Come, All Ye Faithful,” “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,”
“Angels We Have Heard on High,” “We Three Kings of Orient Are,” “Good King Wenceslas,” “Away in a Manger,” “Deck the Halls,” God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,” “Silent Night” and “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.”
During the event, which typically draws between 200 and 300 guests, the Ringers will distribute around 100 complimentary programs, as well as sleigh bells for children to accompany them on “Jingle Bells.”
All are welcome to attend, and guests are encouraged to dress warmly and bring a small flashlight to read carols. For more information, contact Pam Madigan at 617-680-3393.