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The Story of Jingle Bells

Jingle Bells was written as a Thanksgiving song by James Lord Pierpont in the autumn of 1850 in a tavern in Medford, Massachusetts, a town popular for its sleigh races.

Dashing through the snow
In a one-horse open sleigh
O’er the fields we go
Laughing all the way
Bells on bobtail ring
Making spirits bright
What fun it is to laugh and sing
A sleighing song tonight!

The title is an imperative, a command. When we sing, we are telling those bells to jingle.

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.

In the third verse, there’s a girl (yes!) and we’re also a little drunk (upsot here playing with the sound and sense of sot) when our sleigh capsizes in the snow and we tumble out. These races involved young men and young men are going to do some drinking.

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.

Nobody sings the next verse. Who cares if the gent riding by is laughing at us? We’re stuck in a snow drift with Miss Fanny Bright.

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.


Currier and Ives Sleigh Race


Jingle Bells is a song about speed, drinking, and girls. It’s a song about being young and having fun, which is probably why, even though some of its language remains in the 19th century, it is one of the most popular songs in the world.

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.


Currier and Ives Sleigh Ride


Even my ESL students have sung it.



I can’t help but think of Maybellene, a song sung a century later by Chuck Berry, which also has a girl and a race in it, and like Jingle Bells is perfectly poetically written. It too is all about youth and speed though with sexier more modern metaphors, the boy and girl separated in their cars as he pursues motivating over the hill until he catches her in her Coupe de Ville.

As I was motivatin’ over the hill
I saw Mabellene in a Coup de Ville
A Cadillac arollin’ on the open road
Nothin’ will outrun my V8 Ford
The Cadillac doin’ about ninety-five
She’s bumper to bumper, rollin’ side by side

The Cadillac pulled up ahead of the Ford
The Ford got hot and wouldn’t do no more
It then got cloudy and started to rain
I tooted my horn for a passin’ lane
The rainwater blowin’ all under my hood
I know that I was doin’ my motor good

The motor cooled down the heat went down
And that’s when I heard that highway sound
The Cadillac asittin’ like a ton of lead
A hundred and ten half a mile ahead
The Cadillac lookin’ like it’s sittin’ still
And I caught Mabellene at the top of the hill

Maybellene, why can’t you be true?
Oh Maybellene , why can’t you be true?
You’ve started back doin’ the things you used to do

In the Youtube below Chuck Berry talks for about a minute. Be patient and then hang on!



Currier and Ives Central Park in Winter


It was Jingle Bells, however, not Maybellene, that got to be the first song broadcast from outer space. On December 16, 1965, Tom Stafford and Wally Schirra, Gemini 6 astronauts, sent a report to Mission Control: “We have an object, looks like a satellite going from north to south, probably in polar orbit… I see a command module and eight smaller modules in front. The pilot of the command module is wearing a red suit….” Then the astronauts played a rendition of Jingle Bells with the harmonica and sleigh bells they had smuggled on board.



It’s magical to think of these scientists orbiting earth seeing Santa Claus and his reindeer flying by them and taking the time to let us know about it.

These thoughts about Jingle Bells and Maybellene are mine with some info gleaned from the Internet.


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