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Dashing Through the Snow – The Story of “Jingle Bells”

Many people are surprised to learn that “Jingle Bells” was actually written for the American Thanksgiving. The song was composed by James Lord Pierpont, and details about his life and how he wrote the song have been disputed over the years. In fact, some older publications list the song’s writer as anonymous. However, it is now generally accepted that Pierpont was indeed the writer, although the song was originally published as “One Horse Open Sleigh”.

The musician Pierpont was not famous, at least not in his time. In fact, it’s quite possible that he never made a dime from “Jingle Bells.” The son of an American minister, Pierpont struggled at times to provide for his family, especially when he suffered business losses during the San Francisco Gold Rush. Broke drove his wife and children from California to Savannah, Georgia to seek help from his brother John. John Pierpont recently became pastor of a Unitarian church there. With his help, James became the church’s music director and organist.

Pierpont flourished in his position as music director and was liked by colleagues and parishioners alike. Still, his “fame” was mostly confined to Savannah. It is believed that he composed “Jingle Bells” while on a church assignment. According to the story, Pierpont wrote the song for a Sunday school Thanksgiving program. It had virtually no religious content; it was simply a jolly little poem about winter and the follies of youth.

The version of “Jingle Bells” most commonly sung today omits all but the first verse and chorus. Recently, more modern artists have begun to record the second verse as well. The original version contains four stanzas, the refrain is repeated between the verses.

The song tells the story of a clownish but misguided sleigh ride whose driver hopes to impress a girl but ends up being laughed at by a peer. While most people would think that the word “up” in the second verse means that the sleigh overturned, it is actually an ambiguous word that could also refer to “drunkenness.” So perhaps in addition to the fact that the horses were not sure-footed, the driver of the sleigh may also have contributed to the misfortune by being a little dizzy. Despite the rough ride, the song ends by encouraging listeners to take advantage of the crisp winter snow and enjoy sledding.

It is said that when the song was performed at Thanksgiving, it was extremely well received. They asked so much to sing it again at the Christmas pageant. Thus, the “One Horse Open Sleigh” became forever synonymous with Christmas.

Unfortunately for Pierpont, he never realized how much recognition he deserved. The song took several years to gain popularity. There are few people today who cannot sing at least the first verse of “Jingle Bells”. In fact, no Christmas would be complete without it.

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