A Month of Christmas: Jingle Bells

Australia – Jingle Bells (2018) PVA gum

I grew up surrounded by music, primarily rock and roll. I don’t recall the first Christmas carol that I ever heard (although i think it could have been “Silent Night” as it has long been my favorite) but the first secular holiday song I identified with was “White Christmas” by Bing Crosby. I bought the 45 RPM single for my mother’s gift one year which brought years of ridicule. I remember seeing Crosby singing “Peace On Earth” and “Little Drummer Boy” with David Bowie on TV when I was around 12 years old.

My first exposure to a ROCK Christmas song was a 1975 live version of “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town” performed by Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band, and played on my favorite radio station — Kansas City’s KY-102. This was long before this particular version’s eventual release as a B-side to a single in late 1985 and I turned the radio up loud whenever it came on. This led not only a lifetime of Springsteen fandom, but also to a lifetime of collecting every rock (and blues, pop, R&B, and hip-hop) Christmas-related tune I could get my hands on. My Christmas music mixes are sought-after by expats for their holiday parties each year, even here in Thailand. Despite attending many Springsteen concerts over the years, I only saw him perform “Santa Claus” in person once — in a guest star-laden epic length version at the tiny Asbury Park, New Jersey, Convention Hall.

As far as Thai people are concerned, it seems that the only holiday song most of them are familiar with is “Jingle Bells.” This is invariably the one you hear in the schools where the kids all know about half the chorus and hum the other bits. I have tried to teach them other songs in the past but nobody wants to learn anything other than “Jingle Bells” (although I may try out “Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town” later this week).

Title page of “One Horse Open Sleigh” by James Lord Pierpont, 1857.

 It has been said that “Jingle Bells” is one of the best-known and commonly sung American songs in the world. It was written by James Lord Pierpont (1822–1893) and published under the title “One Horse Open Sleigh” in the autumn of 1857. It has been claimed that it was originally written to be sung by a Sunday school choir; however, historians dispute this, stating that it was much too “racy” (and secular) to be sung by a children’s church choir in the days it was written.

Although originally intended for the Thanksgiving season, and having no connection to Christmas, it became associated with Christmas music and the holiday season in general decades after it was first performed on Washington Street in Boston in 1857. Some area choirs adopted it as part of their repertoire in the 1860s and 1870s, and it was featured in a variety of parlor song and college anthologies in the 1880s. It was first recorded in 1889 on an Edison cylinder.

A jingle bell or sleigh bell is a type of bell which produces a distinctive ‘jingle’ sound, especially in large numbers. They find use in many areas as a percussion instrument, including the classic sleigh bell sound and morris dancing. They are typically used as a cheaper alternative to small ‘classic’ bells. The simplest jingle bells are produced from a single piece of sheet metal bent into a roughly spherical shape to contain a small ball bearing or short piece of metal rod. This method of production results in the classic two- or four-leaved shape. Two halves may also be crimped together, resulting in a ridge around the middle. A glass marble may also be used as the ringer on larger bells.

Sleigh bells. Photo taken by Richard Wheeler on January 10, 2007. Used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Bells of this type were developed centuries ago for fastening to harnesses used with horses or teams of horses. Typically they were used for horse-drawn vehicles, such as carriages and sleighs. The bell was designed to make a jingly sound whenever the horse and thus the vehicle was in motion. The purpose was perhaps to herald the approach of someone important, or likely to warn pedestrians of the vehicle’s approach so that they might step aside to avoid collisions and potential injuries. This was especially important for sleighs, which otherwise make almost no sound as they travel over packed snow, and are difficult to stop quickly. This instrument was also used for fun by children in games and songs.

Jingle bells are commonly used on Christmas decorations or as Christmas ornaments themselves, or hung around the neck like a necklace. They can also be strung onto a heavy wire and bent into a wreath shape, usually with a metal bow. Rather than the cross-shaped opening in the bottom, other designs may be cut into the bell, such as a snowflake. Small designs like stars may also be cut into the upper part of the bell. ” Like many Christmas decorations, jingle bells are also made in versions for other holidays, such as a jack-o’-lantern for Halloween. Gustav Mahler makes use of jingle/sleigh bells in his Symphony No. 4. Sergei Prokofiev calls for sleigh bells in his Lieutenant Kijé Suite.

It is an unsettled question where and when Pierpont originally composed the song that would become known as “Jingle Bells”. A plaque at 19 High Street in the center of Medford Square in Medford, Massachusetts, commemorates the “birthplace” of “Jingle Bells”, and claims that Pierpont wrote the song there in 1850, at what was then the Simpson Tavern. According to the Medford Historical Society, the song was inspired by the town’s popular sleigh races during the 19th century.

Plaque commemorating the authorship of the song “Jingle Bells” by James Pierpont at the Simpson Tavern (now 19 High Street) in Medford, Massachusetts. Plaque provided by the Medford Historical Society.

“Jingle Bells” was originally copyrighted with the name “One Horse Open Sleigh” on September 16, 1857. Mrs. Otis Waterman, one of Pierpoint’s friends, described the song as a “merry little jingle”, which became part of its new name when published in 1859 under the revised title of “Jingle Bells, or the One Horse Open Sleigh”. The song has since passed into the public domain.

The date of the song’s copyright casts some doubt on the theory that Pierpont wrote the song in Medford, since by that date he was the organist and music director of the Unitarian Church in Savannah, Georgia, where his brother, Rev. John Pierpont Jr., was employed. In August of the same year, James Pierpont married the daughter of the mayor of Savannah. He stayed on in the city even after the church closed due to its abolitionist leanings.

Historical marker noting James Lord Pierpont as composing “Jingle Bells” in Savannah, Georgia.

“Jingle Bells” was often used as a drinking song at parties: people would jingle the ice in their glasses as they sang. The double-meaning of “upsot” was thought humorous, and a sleigh ride gave an unescorted couple a rare chance to be together, unchaperoned, in distant woods or fields, with all the opportunities that afforded.

Music historian James Fuld notes that “the word jingle in the title and opening phrase is apparently an imperative verb.” 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, as described above.

Jingle Bells

Dashing through the snow
In a one-horse open sleigh
O’er the fields we go
Laughing all the way

Bells on bob tail 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.

Musical notation of “One Horse Open Sleigh” as published in 1857 with the first half of the chorus.

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.
|: chorus

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 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
Hitch him to an open sleigh
And crack! you’ll take the lead.
|: chorus

Musical notation of “One Horse Open Sleigh”, as published in 1857, showing the last page with the second half of the chorus and other verses.

The two first stanzas and chorus of the original 1857 lyrics differed slightly from those we know today. It is unknown who replaced the words with those of the modern version.

Dashing thro’ the snow,
In a one-horse open sleigh,
O’er the hills we go,
Laughing all the way;
Bells on bob tail ring,
Making spirits bright,
Oh what sport to ride and sing
A sleighing song tonight.

|: chorus
Jingle bells, jingle bells,
Jingle all the way;
Oh! what joy it is to ride
In a one-horse open sleigh.

A day or two ago
I tho’t I’d take a ride
And soon Miss Fannie Bright
Was seated by my side.
The horse was lean and lank
Misfortune seemed his lot
He got into a drifted bank
And we—we got upsot.

The original 1857 “Jingle Bells” had a slightly different chorus featuring a more classical-style melody. The “I V vi iii IV I V I” chord progression is a common theme in classical music; except for the final two chord changes, the melody as originally written follows the same chord progression as Pachelbel’s Canon; the tune would later become more closely associated with another Christmas song, “Jolly Old Saint Nicholas”, which appeared about twenty years after “Jingle Bells”.

The “Jingle Bells” tune is used in French and German songs, although the lyrics are unrelated to the English lyrics. Both songs celebrate winter fun, as in the English version. The French song, titled “Vive le vent” (“Long Live the Wind”), was written by Francis Blanche[14][15] and contains references to Father Time, Baby New Year, and New Year’s Day. There are several German versions of “Jingle Bells”, including the popular Roy Black versions of Christkindl and Christmastime.

In Spanish, the lyrics reference Christmas. Religious and secular lyrics both exist for the same melody, though the chorus in both contexts remains the same: Navidad, Navidad / hoy es Navidad / Es un día de alegría / y felicidad (“Christmas, Christmas / today is Christmas / it is a day of joy and happiness.”).

Enjoying a romantic sleigh ride in a one-horse open sleigh.

The Swedish version titled “Bjällerklang” (“Bell Clang”) contains a few extra lines, eight bars long, in the chorus which are followed by a repetition of the last two lines of the chorus. Those were added by the Swedish lyricists, Eric Sandström and Gösta Westerberg.

James Lord Pierpont’s 1857 composition “Jingle Bells” became one of the most performed and most recognizable secular holiday songs ever written, not only in the United States, but around the world. In recognition of this achievement, James Lord Pierpont was voted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.

“Jingle Bells” was first recorded by Will Lyle on October 30, 1889 on an Edison cylinder however no surviving copies are known. The earliest surviving recording was made by the Edison Male Quartette in 1898, also on an Edison cylinder as part of a Christmas medley titled “Sleigh Ride Party”. In 1902, the Hayden Quartet recorded “Jingle Bells”. The song became a Christmas favorite in the early twentieth century.

Bing Crosby “White Christmas” backed with “Jingle Bells” 45 RPM 7-inch single. I bought this record with the exact same picture sleeve for my mother’s sole Christmas present from me, circa 1972.

In 1943, Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters recorded “Jingle Bells” as Decca 23281 which reached No. 19 on the charts and sold over a million copies. In 1941, Glenn Miller and His Orchestra with Tex Beneke, Marion Hutton, Ernie Caceres, and the Modernaires on vocals had a No. 5 hit with “Jingle Bells” on RCA Victor, as Bluebird 11353. In 1935, Benny Goodman and His Orchestra reached No. 18 on the charts with their recording of “Jingle Bells”. In 1951, Les Paul had a No. 10 hit with a multi-tracked version on guitar. In 2006, Kimberley Locke had a No. 1 hit on the Billboard Adult Contemporary chart with a recording of the song.

“Jingle Bells” has been performed and recorded by a wide variety of musical artists, including Louis Armstrong, The Beatles, The Chipmunks, Judy Collins, Nat King Cole (also using the melody at the end of his hit song “The Christmas Song”), Perry Como, Plácido Domingo, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Jo Stafford, Spike Jones, Barry Manilow, the Million Dollar Quartet (Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Elvis Presley), NSync, Luciano Pavarotti, Laura Pausini, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Frank Sinatra, Gwen Stefani, Barbra Streisand, Fats Waller, and Yello, among many others.

In 1955, Don Charles, from Copenhagen, Denmark, recorded a novelty version with dogs barking to the melody of “Jingle Bells” as RCA 6344, and a version credited simply to “St. Nick” called “Jingle Bells (Laughing All the Way)” features someone laughing, rather than singing, the entire song.

Astronauts Walter M. Schirra Jr. (seated), command pilot, and Thomas P. Stafford, pilot, Gemini 6 prime crew, go through suiting up exercises in preparation for their forthcoming flight. The suit technicians are James Garrepy (left) and Joe Schmitt. The mission achieved the first manned rendezvous with another spacecraft, its sister Gemini 7. Although the Soviet Union had twice previously launched simultaneous pairs of Vostok spacecraft, these established radio contact with, but came no closer than several kilometers of each other, while the Gemini 6 and 7 spacecraft came as close as one foot (30 cm) and could have docked had they been so equipped. Gemini 6 launched on December 15, 1965. I was 10 days old.

“Jingle Bells” was the first song broadcast from space, in a Christmas-themed prank by Gemini 6 astronauts Tom Stafford and Wally Schirra. While in space on December 16, 1965, they sent this report to Mission Control:

Gemini VII, this is Gemini VI. We have an object, looks like a satellite going from north to south, up in a polar orbit. He’s in a very low trajectory traveling from north to south and has a very high climbing ratio. It looks like it might even be a … Very low. Looks like he might be going to reenter soon. Stand by one … You might just let me try to pick up that thing.

The astronauts then produced a smuggled harmonica and sleigh bells and broadcast a rendition of “Jingle Bells”. The harmonica, shown to the press upon their return, was a Hohner “Little Lady”, a tiny harmonica approximately one inch (2.5 cm) long, by 3/8 of an inch (1 cm) wide.

“Jingle Bell Rock” by Bobby Helms pays homage to “Jingle Bells”, directly referencing the source song’s lyrics, but with a different melody. Originally recorded and released by Helms in a rockabilly style, “Jingle Bell Rock” has itself since become a Christmas standard.

In the Brian Setzer Orchestra version of the song, the first occurrence of “one-horse open sleigh” in the chorus is changed to “’57 Chevrolet”, most likely to better suit the band’s throwback rock ‘n’ roll/big band style.

The first notes in the chorus have become a motif that has been inserted into recordings other Christmas songs, most notably a guitar passage at the end of Nat King Cole’s “The Christmas Song” and Clarence Clemons performing a saxophone solo in the middle of Bruce Springsteen’s “Merry Christmas Baby”; a piano is also heard playing these notes at the end of Springsteen’s version of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”. A slow version of the chorus opening forms the conclusion of Stan Freberg’s 1957 “Green Chri$tma$”, interspersed with cash-register noises. Mariah Carey utilizes a bit of the melody in her song “When Christmas Comes”. The Tijuana Brass version of “America”, which is not a Christmas song, nonetheless begins with the first few notes of “Jingle Bells”.

Australia – Jingle Bells (2018) self-adhesive version; first day cover with colorized medallion

Australia Post released their annual Christmas stamps for 2018 on November 1 featuring five designs in both tradition gum and self-adhesive variants printed using offset lithography in both sheets of 40 and booklets containing various amounts of stamps. The “Jingle Bells” and “Glad Tiding” self-adhesive stamps were also issued in a variety which added hot-stamped “foil embellishments”. There was also a souvenir sheet featuring the two religious stamps. Thus far, I only have one of the traditional gum “Jingle Bells” stamps and a first day cover bearing the self-adhesive (non-embellished) version. The cover contains a hand-colored medallion. These stamps are denominated at 65 Australian cents.

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