This is part 10 of an Advent/Christmas series titled “Songs of Christmas.” For other parts of the series see the index. The index also contains the introduction for the series.
There is nothing about Christmas here! Not one word. Not only that, “Jingle Bells” was never intended to be a Christmas song at all! In fact, though the song speaks of things of winter, it was intended to celebrate the quintessential FALL holiday, Thanksgiving. As I reflect back on the lyrics, I don’t think t says anything about Thanksgiving either.
When we think about Christmas and the things associated with it, we think of Christmas trees, Santa, presents, decorating, baking, shepherds, angels, wise men, Mary, Joseph and Jesus, to name only a few. None of them are present in this song.
From an early age, James S. Pierpont had talent. As a fairly young boy, he not only sang in church he also played the organ. As he got older, he continued to assist his father (a Unitarian pastor) with the music program at his church in Medford, Massachusetts.
Sometime around 1840 the congregation was planning their Thanksgiving service. It was a big deal at the time because in New England during that period, Thanksgiving was the biggest holiday, not Christmas. Pierpont was given the assignment to write a special song for Thanksgiving.
As Pierpont worked on the song he watched out the window on a bitterly cold day, he observed boys racing sleds on a nearby hill. He bundled up and went out to watch. It wasn’t long before the day’s winner was “crowned” and Pierpont was standing beside the fire warming himself. He thought about many things as he stood before the fire. He thought back to his own childhood and his own sled races and sleigh rides and even sleigh races. As he stood remembering back, a tune started to form in his head.
Pierpont bundled back up again and headed back outside, this time headed for the home of Mrs. Otis Waterman who owned the only piano in town. When Pierpont stood on her porch she was familiar with him and immediately knew what he wanted. She showed him in and found his way to the piano. Mrs. Waterman stood and listened for a while before saying to Pierpont, “That’s quite a jingle you have there.”
Pierpont finished both the tune and the lyrics and taught them to his choir. The choir then sang them at the Thanksgiving service. The song was such a hit, people asked Pierpont to have the choir sing the song again for the Christmas service. Per the request, he and the choir did indeed perform the song for Christmas. It was then the song became associated with Christmas.
It didn’t take long for the song to catch on around Medford. As people began moving to other parts of the country they carried “One Horse Open Sleigh” (the name Medford first gave the song) with them. And, because it was heard by many, for the first time at the Christmas service, it was introduced in other places first as a Christmas song.
Pierpont himself moved to Georgia, he took the song with him. He found a publisher for the song in 1857. Then, in 1864, The Salem Evening News did a story about the song and it was then that Pierpont realized he had written something special. It didn’t take long after that for “Jingle Bells” to become the most popular caroling song in the country.
Today jingle bells are everywhere. They are in our decorations for the season and so much more. And, they are firmly entrenched as a song of Christmas. That’s not bad for a “Thanksgiving” song that isn’t really about Thanksgiving or Christmas!
Have a blessed day in the Lord.
Joy and Peace,
Copyright 2016, J. Keith Broyles, All Rights Reserved
Collins, Ace, Stories Behind the Best Loved Songs of Christmas, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001.
Collins, Andrew, Stories Behind the Greatest Hits of Christmas, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010.
Gant, Andrew, The Carols of Christmas: A Celebration of the Surprising Stories Behind Your Favorite Holiday Songs, Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2015.
Osbeck, Kenneth W. Joy to the World: The Stories Behind Your Favorite Christmas Carols, Grand Rapids: Kregal, 1999.