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Dashing Through the Snow - The Story of "Jingle Bells"

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Posted 11-20-2012 at 12:16 PM by lauriebear

By Duane Shinn

Many people are surprised to learn that "Jingle Bells" was actually written for American Thanksgiving. The song was composed by James Lord Pierpont, and details surrounding his life and the writing of the song have been contended over the years. In fact, in some older publications, the song's writer is listed as 'anonymous.' It is commonly accepted today, however, that Pierpont was indeed the writer, though the song was originally published under the title "One Horse Open Sleigh."

A musician, Pierpont was not famous, at least during his own time. In fact, it's highly likely that he never made a dime off of "Jingle Bells." Pierpont, the son of an American minister, struggled at times to eke out a living for his family, especially when he suffered a business loss during the San Francisco gold rush. Broke, and with a wife and children to support, he headed from California to Savannah, Georgia to ask his brother John for help. John Pierpont had recently become the minister of a Unitarian church there. With his help, James became the church's musical director and organist.

Pierpont flourished in his position as musical director and was well-liked by his colleagues and parishioners alike. Despite this, his 'fame' was mostly limited to Savannah. It is speculated that it was during his posting at the church that he composed "Jingle Bells." The story goes that Pierpont wrote the song for a Sunday School Thanksgiving program. It had virtually no religious content whatsoever; it was simply a jaunty little poem about winter and the follies of youth.

The version of "Jingle Bells" that is sung most often today omits all but the first verse and chorus of the song. Recently, more modern artists have started recording the second verse too. The original version contains four stanzas, with the chorus repeated in between stanzas.

The song tells the story of a frolicking but misguided sleigh ride, whose driver hopes to impress a girl but ends up being laughed at by a peer instead. While most people would think of the word "upsot" in the second verse to mean that the sleigh tipped over, it is actually an ambiguous word which may also have referred to "drunkenness." So, perhaps in addition to the horses being less-than-surefooted, the sleigh's driver may have contributed to its misfortune by being a little bit tipsy. Despite a rough ride, the song concludes with an encouragement to listeners to take advantage of a crisp winter snow and enjoy a sleigh ride.

It is said that when the song was performed for the Thanksgiving pageant, it was extremely well-received. So much so, a request was made to have it sung again at the Christmas pageant. And thus "One Horse Open Sleigh" became forever synonymous with Christmas.

Unfortunately for Pierpont, he never realized the acclamation that was due him. The song took several years to gain more widespread popularity. Today, there are few who can't sing at least the first verse of "Jingle Bells." Indeed, no Christmas would be complete without it.
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