James Pierpont, “One Horse Open Sleigh” (1857)
When it comes to the American tradition of Christmas earworms, the rule of thumb is that the only good songs are the religious ones (e.g., “Silent Night”), while the ones about Santa Claus, Jack Frost, et al. are mostly bad as music, but can be interpreted in interesting ways. And then there’s “Jingle Bells,” which is fundamentally bad, despite Frank Sinatra’s valiant phrasing, and isn’t even, strictly speaking, a song. What gets performed nowadays is just the first part of a Victorian parlor song called “One Horse Open Sleigh,” about taking young ladies out on un-chaperoned rides in wintertime; there are three more verses, though you rarely hear them. It was written by James Pierpont, who was born into a well-known family of New England abolitionists, but found his calling—or whatever you’d call it—in writing blackface minstrel tunes, eventually settling in Georgia, where he penned pro-Confederate songs during the Civil War. (Sample lyrics: “The war drum is beating, prepare for the fight / The stern bigot Northman exults in his might,” which this writer inevitably reads to the tune of “Away In A Manger.”)
The genesis of “Jingle Bells”—from parlor song to brainless earworm—speaks to how Christmas came to be in these United States, and how a lot of it got so ugly. America had a government before it had much of a history to call its own, and thinking of this country’s first century as a concerted effort at establishing identity—with the Civil War as the climax, and the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair as the sequel-teasing stinger—is one of those gross oversimplifications that can be helpful in putting things into perspective. English-speaking Americans barely celebrated Christmas in the late 1700s, but by the middle of the next century, local customs started to mix with fads to create something like a national holiday tradition. That’s around when Pierpont penned “One Horse Open Sleigh,” though not as a Christmas tune; residents of his adopted hometown, Savannah, like to claim to that it was first performed by a children’s church choir at Thanksgiving, though that seems unlikely for a song that’s basically four verses of dating advice for a different climate.
Christmas trees were a foreign novelty then; a decade after the Civil War, they were a must. It took until then for “One Horse Open Sleigh” to get popular, too, as a winter get-together favorite and a drinking song, and then, as sleighs became less of a thing, as a nostalgic reminder of winters (and Christmases) past. And, as with just about everything involving the imagery of Christmas, once it became popular, it was simplified for mass production. The chorus melody was swapped out for one that was a lot easier to sing, and a lot more annoying. Incidentally, the original chorus became the basis of “Jolly Old Saint Nicholas,” by Benjamin Hanby, writer of “Darling Nelly Gray,” an abolitionist response to the kind of minstrel songs that made up of a lot of Pierpont’s output; Hanby also wrote “Up On The Housetop,” the oldest American song about Santa Claus.
Eventually, “One Horse Open Sleigh” got broken down to just the part most people could remember, which was the first verse and chorus. The lyrics—which weren’t that sophisticated to begin with—were dumbed down, too, with fun swapped in for joy and sport. And so, “Jingle Bells,” the oldest of America’s secular Christmas tunes: effectively meaningless and easy to reproduce over and over, it seems to come from nowhere in particular, but is tied to Christmastime by secondhand association. It was once a song, but is now only technically music, which grown-ups perform not to enjoy, but to signify. It’s the worst of holiday cheer in quotation marks.
The jingle in the title, by the way, is a verb.