It’s a good things I stay alert for random factoids, or we would have missed an important anniversary this year. In 2007, the song “Jingle Bells” celebrated its 150th birthday.
The song was written by James Lord Pierpont. He was the son of a Boston minister and somehow ended up being related to J. P Morgan. Sources differ on how, exactly, just as there seems to be some pretty heated disagreement about where precisely James wrote his musical contribution to the ages. It’s often reported that the song was written for a Sunday School program in the early 1850’s; some authorities seem to think that it was for a Thanksgiving celebration, but since Thanksgiving languished largely uncelebrated until the Lincoln Presidency, I have my doubts about that little tidbit.
Sources agree that he was thirty-ish and serving as an organist at a Unitarian church in Savannah, Georgia by the mid-1850’s. He made a trip back to Medford, Mass to (depending on whose version you believe) either compose or get an early reaction to his cute little song, entitled “A One-Horse Open Sleigh.” No fewer than four places claim to be the “home” of the song, with Savannah and Medford both sporting nifty “Birthplace of “Jingle Bells” plaques. At any rate, in September of 1857, he copyrighted the song.
James was an adventurous young man. He had run away to sea at age 14 and later headed west to the Gold Rush. He first married in Troy, New York, and left wife #1 in Medford with his father when he made the move to Savannah. She died there of tuberculosis, and he went on to marry the daughter of Savannah’s mayor.
James took the Southern side during the War Between the States, and composed several pro-South songs such as “Strike for the South” and “We Conquer or Die” which included the lines “The war drum is beating, prepare for the fight!/The stern, bigot Northman exults in his might.” He apparently got himself in some hot water during Reconstruction when he signed on for a plan to bring Scottish itinerant farmers in to work empty Southern farms.
James passed away in 1893 at the age of 71, having realized little fame or fortune from his venerable classic, though it had been popular from day one.
The original tune is a bit different from the one we know today—the chorus is a bit more formal. To my ear it actually bears more than a passing resemblance to the tune of “Jolly Old Saint Nicholas” (a song that authorities list as “traditional” and “origin unknown”).
The lyrics have come down basically unchanged, four full verses in all. It’s the third verse that tends to get left out—in that verse, our hero is blown off the road and laughed at by a faster rig. The only real lyrical oddity is that Jingle Bell scholars believe that the title is an imperative—in other words, we’re giving instructions, not identifying a type. It’s “hey, you bells, get jingly” and not “here we have some jingle type bells.”
Mostly the lyrics point to the big unanswered question, which is this—why exactly is “Jingle Bells” a Christmas song anyway?
It’s not even remotely about Christmas. In the first verse, we extol the fun of ramping around in an open sleigh. In the second, we add a girl (“Fannie Bright” not “Brice,” who didn’t some along until much later) and the get stuck in a snow bank where we become “upsot,” which is 1850’s slang for either turning upside down or becoming drunk.
The final verse is even more direct. “Now the ground is white/ go get it while you’re young/ Take the girls tonight/ and sing this sleighing song.” It also advises that you get a horse with “two forty for his speed,” a reference to a horse that covers a mile in two minutes, forty seconds.
In other words, “Jingle Bells” is nothing less than a 150-year-old celebration of the joys of a woman and a fast vehicle. How such a thing ever became associated with the baby Jesus is quite beyond me, but clearly there’s no reason we couldn’t keep enjoying it throughout the rest of the snow-covered winter season.
Not that all news for the venerable birthday song is good. A recent poll by Edison Media Research tested 579 Christmas recordings. Placing dead last was a song that was a big hit in 1955, created by a Danish sound engineer by the slow painful process of working with hundreds of collected recordings of animal sounds. Yes, “Jingle Bells” as rendered by the Barking Dogs has been judged the least favorite Christmas record of all. Happy birthday, indeed.