If you’ve ever had to sit through the horror/joy that is a children’s Christmas concert, you’ll know that “Jingle Bells” is always on the playlist, often accompanied by out-of-time sleigh bells played by a small child dressed as a snowman. The connection to the holiday season is real — but which holiday? Let’s investigate.
“The One Horse Open Sleigh”
“Jingle Bells” — originally entitled “The One Horse Open Sleigh” — was written in 1857 by New England composer James Pierpont. According to legend, the song was first performed in a Sunday school concert on Thanksgiving in Savannah, Georgia. Many local historians believe that Pierpont penned “Jingle Bells” while in Savannah, as he was experiencing his first snowless winter. But this fact is the subject of fierce debate.
The song, some historians claim, was an ode to Pierpont’s snowy upbringing in Massachusetts. However, others counter that the original lyrics might have been too risqué for a church-going audience.
As Snopes points out, the lesser-known verses of the song describe picking up girls, drag-racing on snow and a high-speed crash. Not exactly “O Holy Night.” One lyric even encourages the listener to “go it while you’re young.” Someone was clearly in the holiday spirit.
War between the states
The argument between Georgia and Massachusetts began in 1985, when a historical marker in Savannah’s Troupe Square was erected across from the Unitarian Church that Pierpont called home. In 1989 Medford, Mass., Mayor Michael McGlynn sent a letter to his counterpart in Savannah stating that Medford was in fact the home of “Jingle Bells.”
The song, McGlynn proclaimed, was composed in the town of Medford back in 1850. Savannahians still claim Savannah as the home of “Jingle Bells,” because the song was copyrighted while Pierpont lived there.
We may never know what Pierpont’s intentions were. There is no mention of the word “Christmas” anywhere in the song. According to the American Music Preservation Society, “It has been reported, though not proven, that he wrote his popular winter song for his father’s Sunday School class for Thanksgiving and it proved so popular that it was sung again at Christmas time.”
There is one final controversy surrounding this famed tuned. Researcher Kyna Hamill, a senior lecturer at Boston University, claims she uncovered a playbill from the September 15, 1857, show by Ordway’s Aeolians that lists a performance of “One Horse Open Sleigh” by Johnny Pell, who was a minstrel performer. Oh dear.
So maybe it’s safe to say that “Jingle Bells” did not start out as a Christmas Song, and it has a bit of a shady past. But over 150 years after its publication, it has become a staple of the Christmas season.
It was the first song ever to be broadcast from space. It’s been recorded by many of the greats including Ella Fitzgerald, The Andrews Sisters, Rosemary Clooney, Bing Crosby, John Denver, Lena Horne and Michael Buble.
“Jingle Bells” has also seen its fair share of arrangements over the years, but none quite so spectacular as the version created by the insanely talented Kay Thompson.
Thompson was an author, singer, vocal arranger, composer, musician and actress. She is best known as the creator of the Eloise children’s books, for her role in the movie Funny Face and for being the godmother to Liza Minnelli. She was a mentor to Andy Williams and wrote the arrangement for him. Take a listen below.
Merry Thanksgiving, everyone!