One Horse Open Sleigh

“The One Horse Open Sleigh”, published in 1857, dedicated to John P. Ordway, Esq.
Renamed “Jingle Bells” and published in 1859
Lyrics and music by James Lord Pierpont (1822-1893)

[ult_dropcap type=”round” color=”#ffffff” bcolor=”#94c263″ ]T[/ult_dropcap]hat definitive Christmas song, “Jingle Bells”, which we’ve all known since we were old enough to attempt to sing, and with which each of us no doubt associates many a Christmas memory, is not what you think it is. The version you hear on the radio today? Only a close relative of the original song. The original wasn’t even called “Jingle Bells”, and was not even intended to be a Christmas song (but then, neither was “Winter Wonderland”)! The long history of this song is filled with more controversy and myths than practically any other holiday carol. What version you get just depends on whom you ask, but be careful: this North vs. South battle is as heated as any fought during the Civil War.

This much is true: “Jingle Bells”, originally entitled “One Horse Open Sleigh”, was written by James Lord Pierpont (1822-1893), son of poet and reverend John Pierpont and uncle of financier J.P. (James Pierpont) Morgan, in the 1850s. It was no doubt inspired by memories of growing up in Medford, Massachusetts, as it evokes images of sleigh rides both leisurely and frenetic, and of young romance. It was copyrighted on Sep. 16, 1857, by Oliver Ditson & Co., and dedicated to John P. Ordway, Esq. Two years later, it was republished as “Jingle Bells”.

All parties seem to agree that “One Horse Open Sleigh” was written and first performed by a church choir, either for his father’s Medford service or for a service for the Unitarian Church at Troup Square in Savannah, where his brother, John, was pastor. If that’s true, it is surprising, given that the lyrics describe fast-paced sleigh races (Hitch him to an open sleigh and crack! you’ll take the lead), the courtship of a young lady (And soon Miss Fanny Bright, was seated by my side), and encourages young men to participate in both of these activities (Now the ground is white, go it while you’re young; Take the girls tonight, and sing this sleighing song). Again, nowhere in the lyrics is Christmas mentioned.

As for the legends surrounding this song, many versions exist. Both Medford, Massachusetts, and Savannah, Georgia, claim to be its birthplaces, and both do have some legitimate claims. Logic seems to dictate that Pierpont wrote the song’s lyrics and music in Medford in the early 1850s and later found a publisher for it while living in Savannah.

The Medford version of the story goes like this:

Pierpont was given the assignment to write a song for a Thanksgiving service at the First Medford Unitarian Church where his father was the pastor. One legend says that this took place in 1840, and claims that the choir’s performance was so well received that local residents asked for an encore at the Christmas service. After the Christmas service, the song became a local favorite as people adopted it as one of their traditional carols, well before the song was ever published. Another version of the legend claims that it was written for the 1857 Thanksgiving service.

What is consistent about all of the Medford accounts is that Pierpont came up with the melody to his song first, and went to the home of Mrs. Otis Waterman, who owned the only piano in town. As he worked out the song on the piano, Mrs. Waterman noted, “That is a very merry little jingle!” (a comment that one assumes led to the song’s chorus and eventual name), and that he should have a lot of success with it. A plaque outside the Simpson Tavern in Medford at one time marked it as being the birthplace of the song, but the sign was damaged by a snow plow and had to be removed. Those from Savannah, however, have a different version of the origin of “Jingle Bells”:

In 1853, Pierpont left his wife, Millicent, and their two children, in Medford with his father. (This wasn’t the first time Pierpont had left his family. At the age of 14, he ran away from home to sail the sea about a ship called “The Shark”. And, in 1849, Pierpont moved to San Francisco during the height of the Gold Rush, to open up a business in the hopes of striking it rich. When the business burned to the ground in one of the Great Fires, he moved back to Medford.) He moved to Savannah, where he earned money by playing organ and giving singing lessons at the Unitarian Church, where his brother, Rev. John Pierpont, Jr., was pastor. Pierpont published his first songs in Savannah, and, after Millicent died of tuberculosis in 1856, he married Eliza Jane Purse, daughter of Savannah’s mayor, Thomas Purse.

Savannahians say that Pierpont wrote “One Horse Open Sleigh” in 1856 or 1857, possibly to “cheer up the local Sunday-school evening meeting”. One fact that can not be disputed, however, is that the song was published in 1857 by the Oliver Ditson Company of Boston. The company reissued the song under the name “Jingle Bells, Or the One Horse Open Sleigh” in 1859, at 30 cents a copy (5 cents more than the original).

Pierpont never saw much profit from the sales of his song, due to the contract he had with Ditson. In fact, he never thought it was a song that would have any lasting popularity– after all, none of his other songs did– and never took much credit for it. Initial copies only credited the song’s composer as “J. Pierpont” (which was assumed to be John Pierpont, James’ father), or even “James S.” or “anonymous”. It was only when the “Salem Evening News” did a piece on the song in 1864 that Pierpont realized that how popular “Jingle Bells” really was.

After James Lord Pierpont’s death in 1893, proper credit was again not given on copies of the sheet music, again listing the composer as “anonymous”. Pierpont’s son, Dr. Juriah Pierpont M.D., who had renewed the copyright on “Jingle Bells” in 1880, began sending letters along with his wife, Lucy, to the music publishing companies. Their campaign eventually paid off, and Pierpont’s name was again attached to his music. His descendants, raised in the south, also fought to associate the song’s origins with Savannah.

Even though the song had been known in the north, its popularity really increased with the invention of phonographs and radios. The first recording of “Jingle Bells” was by the Edison Male Quartette in 1898, available on an Edison brown wax cylinder, and again in 1902 by the Hayden Quartet. The version recorded by Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters in 1943 sold a million copies that year and became Crosby’s eighth million-selling record.

Pierpont died on August 5,1893, in Winter Haven, Florida, where he had lived his final years with his son. Initially buried in Florida, Pierpont’s body was moved to Laurel Grove Cemetery in Savannah, where he was placed next to his brother-in-law Thomas, who had been killed in the first battle of Bull Run. The Unitarian Universalist Church in Savannah, which today calls itself the “Jingle Bells Church”, erected a plaque in 1985 to honor James Pierpont.

Pirepont Jingle Bells Savannah

Visitors to the Laurel Grove Cemetery today will have no problem finding Pierpont’s grave. Five hand-painted signs point the way: “Jingle Bells”, “Jingle Bells”, “Jingle Bells”, “Jingle Bells”, “Jingle Bells”.

Take a listen to some of the various ways “Jingle Bells” has been performed:

Jingle ALL the Ways on Mixcloud