The Shocking Truth About our Beloved Jingle Bells

Many can shamelessly enjoy singing Jingle Bells with confidence regardless of vocal abilities. Yet like Australia’s National Anthem, Jingle Bells has a couple of lesser known versus. These lesser known versus point to the shocking truth that the much beloved Jingle Bells has nothing whatsoever to do with Santa, family, Jesus, presents or Christmas and the values it does espouse are questionable.

It’s an odd situation. One of the most beloved Christmas songs in the world, a song in the top 25 most recorded songs in the world from 1890 to 1954, isn’t a Christmas song at all. A quick probe of the first verse brings to light some glaring hints Jingle Bells is a song about something almost entirely off the Christmas message. A look at the lesser known versus shows this song verges on the immoral! So why do we sing this song with joy in our heart thinking of Christmas when it’s message about another topic?

Pierpont’s 1857 Jingle Bells classic is about the joys of riding a sleigh. In modern language it’s about the thrill of driving a speeding car in dangerous slippery conditions. A lad’s song about picking up women and having a drink. In a modern context, think of the repetitive, catchy, hottest 100 songs. If a Jingle Bells equivalent were written today you would likely hear the crowd singing it around F1 and Nascar circuits or notice it included in the “Fast and the Furious” movie series sound track. Its the type of song a drunk hoon would wail at the top of his lungs, head hanging out the window, whilst ever quickening his speed.

It was written a long time ago by James Lord Pierpont in 1857 in the United States of America. James was a Christian, an organist and composer. He lived in a few places but at the time Jingle Bells was copyrighted he was in Savannah, Georgia. The song was first sung in his local congregational hall by kids celebrating Thanksgiving in a Thanksgiving concert.

To understand the song, transport yourself to USA, 1857. A time before automobiles, when horse and cart or horse and sleigh ruled the streets. It was just before the American Civil War and when the Maine Law had been passed by 12 States prohibiting or greatly restricting the sale and consumption of alcohol.  A time when Christmas was transitioning from Christian celebration towards the modern, magical, make-believe fairy tale frolic it’s become.

Jingle Bells brings to mind images of snow, laughter, fun and a sleigh and these ideas are all in parallel to what we see during the festive Christmas season. The connections we make between this song and Christmas are entirely coincidental and misplaced. Society can often create associations where from one idea or thing to another. 

Like most unfortunate artists, Pierpont never really saw his song become a huge success. Most of the success came after his death. In my opinion the history and growth of the song into its modern place in culture is a fascinating tale.

We all sing Jingle Bells at Christmas. At Carols in our local communities it is included in the playlist along with Silent NightDeck the HallsRudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer and O Come all ye Faithful along with a swag of others. It is catchy, easy to remember and a song that a young child can quickly engage with. 

Jingle Bells will forever be associated with Christmas despite that the shocking truth about our beloved Jingle Bells is that it has nothing to do with Christmas.

Lyrics

Music historian James Fuld notes that “the word jingle in the title and opening phrase is apparently an imperative verb.”[7] In the winter in New England in pre-automobile days, it was common to adorn horses’ harnesses with straps bearing bells as a way to avoid collisions at blind intersections, since a horse-drawn sleigh in snow makes almost no noise. The rhythm of the tune mimics that of a trotting horse’s bells. However, “jingle bells” is commonly taken to mean a certain kind of bell.

Jingle Bells

Dashing through the snow
In a one-horse open sleigh
O’er the fields we go
Laughing all the way
Bells on bobtail 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.
Jingle bells, jingle bells,
Jingle all the way;
Oh! what fun it is to ride
In a one-horse open sleigh.

Although less well-known than the opening, the remaining verses depict high-speed youthful fun. In the second verse, the narrator takes a ride with a girl and loses control of the 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.[a]

|: chorus 😐

One Horse Open Sleigh

Second half of the chorus and other verses
Musical notations of the original version

In the next verse (which is often skipped), he falls out of the sleigh and a rival laughs at him:

A day or two ago,
The story I must tell
I went out on the snow,
And on my back I fell;
A gent was riding by
In a one-horse open sleigh,
He laughed as there I sprawling lie,
But quickly drove away.

|: chorus 😐

In the last verse, after relating his experience, he gives equestrian advice to a friend to pick up some girls, find a faster horse, and take off at full speed:

Now the ground is white
Go it while you’re young,
Take the girls tonight
and sing this sleighing song;
Just get a bobtailed bay
Two forty as his speed[b]
Hitch him to an open sleigh
And crack! you’ll take the lead.

|: chorus 😐
Title page
First half of the chorus


Categories: Lachlan Clyne - Personal Life, Mayor Clyne's Opinion

Tags: , , , , , , ,

2 replies

  1. An interesting tale.
    If we look hard and deep enough at many of our traditions (especially the festive and religious ones) most people would be surprised by the origins. There are many pagan rites and customs that carry through to Christian celebrations today. This is compounded by the the increasing commercialisation. Even putting up Xmas lights and the Christmas tree has a pre-Christian origin.
    Whatever the origin, it is the spirit and reflection that counts.

    • It is a facinating area of study. Simply looking through some of the history around this song made me laugh and giggle. I couldn’t agree more that is is the spirit and reflection during these festivities that is important. Why, how and what we celebrate is up to the individual and I hope each person asks themselves this so they celebrate with emotional sincerity in order to bring a greater depth and meaning to their lives.

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