|Jingle Bells was first performed at Thanksgiving Sunday School program in Medford, Massachusetts. The town claims, however, it was penned at the Simpson Tavern pictured above. In fact it was written in Savannah, Georgia.|
Note—Thought we were done with Christmas? Not quite. The season goes on until the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6. Besides, the spritely tune discussed here was never intended to be a Christmas song, only a winter one.
You hear it everywhere, in shopping malls, TV commercials, on the radio, and in school pageants. It has been performed and recorded in every possible musical style including big band swing, bluegrass, jazz, polka, rock and roll, symphony, and rap by just about every popular entertainer imaginable. It has been called the most popular Christmas song of all time, transcending even the most beloved carol, Silent Night and the popular standard White Christmas. Yet it never mentions the holiday and was never meant to be a Christmas song at all.
The song’s origins stretch back nearly 150 years. James Lord Pierpont was the prodigal younger son of the Rev. John Pierpont, a close associate of William Ellery Channing and an influential figure in the founding of American Unitarianism who latter rose to prominence as an ardent abolitionist . Among James’s siblings were John Jr., another future Unitarian cleric and a sister, Juliet, who became the mother of arch capitalist J.P. Morgan. The artistically inclined young James was the preverbal preacher’s son—restless with restrictions at home, rebellious, and often in trouble. Born in 1822, he ran away to sea at the age of 14 aboard the clipper ship Shark. Another rebellious Unitarian lad of the same period was Richard Henry Dana, whose account of misery at sea in his book Two Years Before the Mast shocked the sensibilities of mercantile New England.
|James Lord Pierpont.|
Returning to New England he married and fathered three children while casting about in a series of failed business ventures. Lured to California by the Gold Rush of 1849 he thought to strike it rich not by mining himself, but by taking pictures of the newly rich prospectors. But like his other ventures, his San Francisco photography shop ended in failure.
After his first wife died in 1853 he took his young family to join his brother, the Rev. John Pierpont, Jr., minister of the Unitarian Church in Savannah, Georgia, which was the largest Unitarian congregation in the South. He took up residence and earned a modest living as organist in his brother's church. Eventually he also set himself up in business selling house paint, varnish, wallpaper, window glass, and art supplies. In 1857 he married the daughter of a prominent Savannah civic leader who would go on to serve as the city’s Civil War mayor.
Sometime during those years, restless as ever and lonesome for his lost New England childhood, he penned a song he called The One Horse Open Sleigh. He may have drawn as inspiration a sleighing party that he had rapturously reported to his mother in an 1832 letter.
|The historic Savannah Unitarian Church, the largest in the South, where Jame Pierpont's brother was the minister and where he was employed as the organist. The church posts it claim on Jingle Bells on the historical marker out front.|
In snow bound New England the sleigh was both a necessary form of transportation and a winter diversion. There was a whole genre of sleighing songs. The best known today, Over the River and Through the Woods is associated with that quiescently New England holiday, Thanksgiving. But it accounted a family expedition in a large, multi-passenger sled of the sort often pulled by a team. Pierpont's song was about a cutter, a fast two seat light sleigh often pulled by a thoroughbred trotter. It is a courtship song, with a young man out to impress Miss Fanny Bright with his speed and daring until he miscalculates the depth of a drift and the sleigh becomes “up sot.”
The song may have mystified his brother’s Southern parishioners, but James mailed copies home and it was sung in Medford, Massachusetts at Thanksgiving parties sometime in the mid 1850’s. This would lead to a later spurious claim that the song had been written there.
James copyrighted and published the song in 1857. Two years later it was issued in a new edition as Jingle Bells or the One Horse Open Sleigh. Within a decade it was a popular American parlor sing-a-long favorite, linked in the public’s mind with the colorful Currier and Ives prints of sleighing scenes that adorned many homes. It was considered a winter song, but not a Christmas one.
Unfortunately, James never profited much from royalties from the song.
Dark clouds were gathering that would change his life forever. As the passions stirred by the 1860 presidential election grew heated brother John, an abolitionist like his father, was forced to give up his pulpit and return to the North costing James his job at church. James remained in Savannah, now an ardent supporter of the Southern cause. After war broke out the combination of a war economy and the increasingly effective blockade of Southern ports destroyed James’s shaky business venture.
At the age of 40 he enlisted as a clerk in the First Georgia Battalion, which became a part of the 5th Georgia Cavalry. Although he was a gentleman with connections to a leading aristocratic family, James never rose above the rank of private. He remained in the Confederate Army for the duration of the war, although his rear echelon unit saw little action, mostly patrolling in defense of railroad lines and later scouting Yankee positions during the Atlanta campaign. His greatest contribution to the Confederate war effort came as the composer of patriotic songs including We Conquer or Die, Our Battle Flag, and Strike for the South. Meanwhile his father and brother served as chaplains in the Union Army.
After the war there were hard times in the South and James and his family shared in them. Eventually he found a niche as professor of music at Quitman Academy. He spent his last years in Florida at his son’s home in Winter Haven before dying in 1893.Jingle Bells may not have been his only contribution to seasonal music. According to the 1994 book American Christmas by Jim Harrison, “For many years Martin Luther was credited with writing one of the best loved Christmas songs, Away in a Manger .. .but history now has evidence to dispute his authorship. An American, James Pierpont, is currently believed to be the author.” UUA historian Peter Hughes doubts the claim, however. Although the song is undoubtedly American dating from some time in the 1880’s, its origins are murky, probably Lutheran although the lyrics were first published as a poem in a Universalist periodical.
Away in a Manger aside, James Pierpont’s claim on our seasonal culture is indisputable. By the early Twentieth Century, as the automobile was replacing the horse, Jingle Bells was being melded into the general sentimentality of the Christmas season. In the days before the explosion of popular secular holiday songs like White Christmas, I’ll Be Home for Christmas, Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, and The Christmas Song, it provided a much needed non religious song suitable for performance in public schools and in mixed gatherings. The simple, lively tune was easy to sing and easy to adapt to a host of musical styles. It has become an indisputable Christmas classic.