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"Jingle Bells" Is A Thanksgiving Song: What?

Historical Art | December 1, 2019

Two people ride across a field in a one-horse open sleigh ca. 1930. (Getty Images)

As one of the best-loved songs of the Christmas season, "Jingle Bells" has become part of our holiday culture, but there is more to this catchy ditty than meets the ear. For one thing, "Jingle Bells" is a Thanksgiving song, not a Christmas song, but that's just the tip of the snowball. Let's take a closer look at the history of this well-known song, how it came to be, and how it became a Christmas standard. 

"Jingle Bells" is a Thanksgiving song. (chattanogafun.com)

Merry ... Thanksgiving?

Listen carefully to the lyrics of "Jingle Bells," and you'll realize it contains no reference to Christmas or the December holidays whatsoever. It simply boasts the joys of winter and the rush of zipping through the snow in a horse-drawn sleigh. That's why it makes a surprising sort of sense that "Jingle Bells" was written for Thanksgiving. It was first performed during a Thanksgiving Day service, after which it was often performed at Thanksgiving time.

"Jingle Bells" contains several verses. (artnet.com)

Some Of The Verses Are A Bit Racy

Please retrieve your hat because we're about to blow it off again: "Jingle Bells" has more than one verse. Most of the time, we only hear that first verse about the pleasure of a snowy sleigh ride, but the original song continues with a surprising mix of sex and violence. In one verse, the song's narrator talks about picking up a girl and trying to impress her with the speed of his sleigh, while another verse tells of two young men drag racing their sleighs, both with disastrous results. In another verse, the song's narrator slips on an icy road and falls on his backside while a passing sleigh rider, presumably a buddy of the narrator, laughs and points at the unfortunate fellow. So much for goodwill towards men.

The jingle bells that Tom Stafford used to play a prank on Mission Control are on display at the Smithsonian Museum. (airandspace.si.edu)

Jingle All The Way ... To Space

"Jingle Bells" has the honor of being the first song broadcast from space. Just before Christmas 1965, the astronauts of the Gemini 6 contacted Mission Control to report a strange object traveling away from the North Pole, noting that it seemed to have a low Earth orbit. Mission Control was quite concerned about the incident until the astronauts began to play "Jingle Bells," with astronauts Wally Schirra playing the harmonica and Tom Stafford shaking a set of sleigh bells. 

J.P. Morgan's uncle wrote "Jingle Bells." (edgarebrochristmassongs.blogspot.com)

"Jingle Bells" Was Penned By J.P. Morgan's Crazy Uncle

This deceptively rude winter anthem was written by songwriter James Lord Pierpont, brother-in-law to millionaire businessman Junius Spencer Morgan. The firstborn son of Morgan and Pierpont's sister was John Pierpont "J.P." Morgan, who became one of the most powerful and wealthiest financiers of the 1800s. While J.P. Morgan was a successful businessman like his father, James Lord Pierpont played the role of the freewheeling, crazy uncle. 

Pierpont left his family to look for riches in the California gold rush. (clickamericana.com)

Pierpont Was An Absent Father And Husband

James Lord Pierpont had an adventurous side that couldn't be tamed. At age 14, he left school without his parents' permission to join a whaling ship departing from Boston and ended up spending close to 10 years at sea. By 1849, Pierpont had settled in Boston and started a family there, but he got swept up in gold fever after its discovery in California in 1849. He left his family behind while he chased the idea of easy money during the gold rush, only to return a few years later empty-handed. He didn't stay put for long, leaving again in 1853 to work as an organist for a church in Savannah, Georgia. Eventually, his wife died, presumably tired of waiting for him to come back, so he stepped up and manfully sent his children to live with their grandfather while he married the mayor of Savannah's daughter.

"Jingle Bells" was performed by singers in blackface. (history.com)

Pierpont's Songs Were Performed In Blackface

Pierpont was good friends with Boston-area doctor and patron of the arts John Ordway, who led a musical troupe that performed in blackface called Ordway's Aeolians. A number of Pierpont's songs, including "Jingle Bells," were performed by the Aeolians; in fact, a playbill dated September 15, 1857 lists the song as being performed by Johnny Pell, a singer described as one the group's "dandy darkies."

Pierpont wrote songs for the Confederate Army. (jvmusic.net)

Pierpont Supported the Southern Cause

Although his northern family declared their opposition to slavery, Pierpont---surprise, surprise---supported the causes of the Confederacy. When the Civil War broke out, he joined the 1st Georgia Cavalry while his father served in the Union Army as a chaplain for the 22nd Massachusetts Infantry. Pierpont lent his songwriting talents to the Confederacy, writing a number of songs that became Confederate anthems, including "Strike for the South," "Our Battle Flag," and "We Conquer, or Die!" Just let that cozy thought warm your heart next time you get a hankering for some bells on bobtails.

Tags: 1800s | Christmas | music | Thanksgiving

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.