A note on history: Jingling all the way into Christmas

The history of ‘Jingle Bells’

By Caroline Ho, Arts Editor


Compile a list of the most well-known Christmas carols, and “Jingle Bells” is probably near the top. However,  if you think about the lyrics, none of them actually mention Christmas or the holiday season at all (unless you count the “Ho! Ho! Ho!” sometimes added after “Laughing all the way”). That’s because it didn’t start out as a Christmas song at all: It was first a Thanksgiving song, and over 150 years, it’s worked its way into becoming a Christmas classic.

“Jingle Bells” was first published in 1857 under the title “One Horse Open Sleigh,” written by James Lord Pierpont. There are a few different and somewhat apocryphal origin stories about the song. One version claims it was written in Medford, Massachusetts, in 1850, and another suggests it was written in Savanah, Georgia, where Pierpont was the music director and organist of a church at the time of the song’s publication. Both Medford and Savannah have plaques claiming to be the hometown of “Jingle Bells.”

Supposedly, Pierpont wrote the song for a Sunday School class on Thanksgiving, and it was so well-received that it was requested to be performed again on Christmas. This story is also disputed, largely because the lyrics of the lesser-known last verse weren’t entirely appropriate for Sunday School—it includes the lines “Go it while you’re young/Take the girls tonight.” It might just have been a song about sleigh races, which were a very popular activity in the mid-19th century.

In any case, the song was re-published under the name “Jingle Bells” in 1859. It took some years for it to gain much popularity, but by the time of Pierpont’s death in 1893, it had become quite well-known in the US. It was first recorded in 1898 by the Edison Male Quartet on a record called “Sleigh Ride Party,” using an early kind of recording device known as an Edison cylinder. It was recorded again by the Hayden Quartet in 1902, and many more times in the following decades. The song really became cemented into the Christmas tradition with the lively 1943 rendition by Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters. Crosby’s version, which contains only the chorus and the first verse, sold over a million copies. From 1890 to 1954, “Jingle Bells” was consistently in the top 25 list of most recorded songs in the world. The song’s fame earned Pierpont a spot in the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame in 1970.

“Jingle Bells” was launched even further into renown in December of 1965 when it became the first song played in outer space. Astronauts Wally Schirra and Tom Stafford, aboard the Gemini 6, pranked Mission Control by reporting that they saw an unidentified spacecraft piloted by someone “wearing a red suit”—and then the astronauts broke out into a rendition of “Jingle Bells” with a tiny harmonica and set of bells they snuck aboard. The harmonica and bells are still on display today in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

A lot of artists since have recorded their own versions of “Jingle Bells” on holiday albums, from the Beatles to the Barenaked Ladies to Michael Bublé. It’s also the basis for the popular “Jingle Bell Rock” (1957), and it’s been made into a lot of parody versions, the most notable of which is probably the “Batman Smells” version that’s been around since the ’60s.

Nowadays, the carol is pretty much ubiquitously accepted as a Christmas song. The tune and its associated sleigh bells have become an inseparable part of Christmas imagery.

But isn’t it more fun to think of it as a song about high-speed sleigh races and picking up girls?