Christmas Tips & Fun

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Music of Christmas

Some Things You Might Not Know About Jingle Bells

J

ingle in "Jingle Bells" is, according to someone who should know such things, an imperative verb. It does not describe a type of bell but instead commands the bells on the one-horse open sleigh to "jingle" and not just silently go along for the ride.

The song was written in a tavern in Medford, Massachusetts, in 1850 by musician James Lord Pierpont, the uncle of financier J.P. Morgan (of JPMorgan Chase banking fame). The local historical society has a brass plaque commemorating the event and the witness who was there.

Medford had a history of racing sleighs, and Pierpont had long been interested in the speed they obtained, so extolling the virtues of the experience in song was pretty much a no-brainer.

When he finally got around to copyrighting it in 1857 it was with the title of "One Horse Open Sleigh" but it was only a couple of years later that it became Jingle Bells.

It was originally written as a song to sing around Thanksgiving after sufficient snow had fallen to make a good racing surface but has since become popular for the snowy season beyond Thanksgiving and Christmas and on into the New Year.

In addition to the misconception about "jingle”, "bobtail" (as in "bobtail nag") does not refer to a breed of horse but rather to the way the horse’s tail was clipped short in order to keep it free of the reins. "Upsot" in the second verse was not just Barbara Streisand’s exaggerated pronunciation but the simple past form of "upset". (It may also have been a not-so-subtle commentary on the word "sot" used to describe inebriated persons – perhaps the same ones driving the sleighs back in the 1850s.)

Pierpont’s third verse reinforces that notion as he offers advice to the "fast young racy set" on how to use a sleigh to get girls:

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
Hitch him to an open sleigh
And crack! you'll take the lead.

The "two-forty" reference relates to the horse’s ability to cover a mile in that time, a pretty good clip on snow.

Written by Dianne Weller
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