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The Story Behind the Winter Holiday Song "Jingle Bells"

Jingle Bells: The Ever-Beautiful Christmas Carol

James Lord Pierpont composed One Horse Open Sleigh in 1857, which we popularly recognize as Jingle Bells today.  Pierpont was from New England and a devoted organist, whose original intention behind penning the piece was for Thanksgiving, at a church program in Savannah, Georgia. Extremely well-acclaimed, the song was also sung on Christmas that year and soon became an American staple for the holidays. 

Santa flying at night over snow

Over the centuries, this song has been adapted in many art forms and media. Considering the movies like “Home Alone,” the children’s classic is a fine example that narrates a young boy’s unwitting adventures, along with “A Christmas Story”, both have their own renditions of the song, that is still well remembered by those who grew up in the 80s and 90s. 

It is admissible that most of us hummed or sang Jingle Bells in our childhood days. Records have shown that there are some differences present between the original The One Horse Open Sleigh and the modern Jingle Bells. The strongest speculations suggest that this is due to it being considered too progressive for that time. "Go it while you’re young, Take the girls tonight" is an example of the lines that caused the uproar. 

As an American classic that eventually spread all over the world, Jingle Bells has attracted debates from historians regarding the place of its origin, mainly between Georgia and Massachusetts. Medford in Massachusetts was extremely well known in the 19th century for its sleigh races and strongly claims itself as the tune’s birthplace. 

After the original composition in 1857, the name was evidently changed from One Horse Open Sleigh to Jingle Bells in 1859. Thomas Stafford and Wally Schirra, an astronaut couple on Gemini 6 orbiting Earth in 1965, pulled a prank on mission control by playing Jingle Bells in space. This became the first such instance where a song was broadcast from outer space. They first stated that they saw an unidentified humanoid in a red suit and followed that with a rendition of Jingle Bells on a smuggled harmonica. This instrument is now on display at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

The historical facet of the song is quite storied with its origins disputed among multiple locations, but some records also confirmed the song to have been written in Boston. Historian Kyna Hamill at the Boston University and also attached to the Medford Historical Society investigated to find that Jingle Bells debuted in a blackface show. Hamill’s research started from how Jingle Bells was created initially to solve the issue of ownership between Massachusetts and Georgia. 

According to this investigation, the first performance happened as One Horse Open Sleigh at a blackface musical in Boston in 1857. Hamill believed that this particular aspect of its history was removed from memory and history books to maintain the inoffensive image of the song. Jingle Bells, is a wonderful carol for Christmas and its immense popularity has truly shielded it from most criticisms. It has become a prime example of how over-romanticizing can occur of a simple theme, but one that is offset by its very apparent and clear contribution to the constructs of black and white in America. 

Today, there is a feeling that the vintage emotion attached with the song is gradually being lost to the advent of Jingle Bell Rock. There are many who will argue that it’s the same song in a different style and others who will vehemently argue against that. For some, a classic Christmas carol is unmatched and sacred to the aesthetics. The rock version wouldn’t be performed today if not for the original and the latter is still favored by most when the holidays visit us. Christmas songs such as Jingle Bells are classics and never seem to go out of trend, repeated every year at the same time. 




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