The last couple years Jingle Bells has literally started my holiday season. When I help with parlor music at the Drum Barracks Civil War Museum, this is the song that kids love. They might not know The First Noel or Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, but they sure belt out Jingle Bells and Deck the Halls.
This year we sang Jingle Bells so many times that I refused to listen to or play the song for a week. Then historical curiosity got the better of me. Out came the sheet music. Out came the history books. Now, I want to go sleighing…
That might not happen in Southern California, but come take a ride through the history of this famous Christmas classic.
A Thanksgiving Song?
In New England during the mid-19th Century, Thanksgiving was a more popular holiday than Thanksgiving, often celebrated with gatherings, sleighing parties, and other festive activities that we now associate with Christmas. Sleighing could be a rather risky thing in that time. First, there was always the danger of an accident or deep snow bank. Second, a courting couple might spend time *alone* and *unchaperoned* while out driving through the winter wonderland. The speed, aloneness, and sheer adventure made sleighing a popular activities and Civil War soldiers frequently wrote home to ask if there had been any good sleighing parties.
Bells were often attached to the horse’s harness to alert other drivers or pedestrians about the approaching sleigh.
James L. Pierpont wrote the original lyrics to Jingle Bells and called the piece “One Horse Open Sleigh” when he copyrighted and published it in 1857. It’s never quite clear where Pierpont was when he wrote the piece or if the sleighing races in Medford, Massachusetts, provided the inspiration. Different towns like to claim the honor of the inspiration.
Pierpont also composed the song’s tune which has stayed the same through the decades. Some have added to or altered the verses, but the first verse and chorus remains basically the same from its first publication.
The song became very popular and quickly made its way into song books. One legend claims the piece had been written for church and was popular in religious services. That seems unlike, considering the era and the slightly questionable nature of sleighing!
A Sleigh Misadventure?
Here are the original verses by Pierpont:
Dashing through the snow
In a one-horse open sleigh
O’er the fields we go
Laughing all the way
Bells on bob tail ring
Making spirits bright
What fun it is to ride and sing
A sleighing song tonight!
Jingle bells, jingle bells,
Jingle all the way;
Oh! what fun it is to ride
In a one-horse open sleigh.
A day or two ago
I thought I’d take a ride
And soon, Miss Fanny Bright
Was seated by my side,
The horse was lean and lank
Misfortune seemed his lot
He got into a drifted bank
And then we got upsot. [Chorus]
Will risk your reputation and the dangers of getting “upsot” to go sleighing?
Enjoy The Music
Have a wonderful weekend, holiday season, and winter – laughing all the way, whether you’re sleighing or doing other activities!