Sunday School Tune or Drinking Song?—The Meaning Behind the Christmas Classic ‘Jingle Bells’

“Jingle Bells” is one of the most enduring Christmas classics. Armed with a bright jangle of sleigh bells keeping in time to the racing lyrics, it is a fun and infectious holiday sing-a-long.

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“Jingle Bells” depicts a snow day’s excitement, the 1800s equivalent of a hot date, and ends in a tumble on the icy ground. In other words, the formula for a very, merry Christmas. However, the meaning behind the iconic Christmas tune has no original ties to the yuletide holiday at all.

Georgia or Massachusetts?: The Origins

The “Jingle Bells” origin story is a vague and much-contended one. The tale definitely begins with composer James Pierpont in the mid-19th century. From there, the details get a little frosty.

Two different towns, hundreds of miles apart, both claim to be the birthplace of the iconic song. While Massachusetts-born Pierpont was living in Savannah, Georgia, he had what would-be “Jingle Bells” published and copyrighted under the title “One Horse Open Sleigh” in 1857.

However, many claim the tune was written years earlier at the Simpson Tavern in Medford, Massachusetts, insisting the author was inspired by his childhood home of Medford where the winters are more apt for sleigh riding.

Even now, it is disputed who gets dibs.

Sunday School Tune or Drinking Song?

Some sources say Pierpont originally wrote the song for his father’s Sunday school choir, gearing up for a Thanksgiving program at church. The addictively singable verses were apparently a hit among the group who were eager to sing them again come Christmas.

This, however, has been disputed by others for the fact that “Jingle Bells” contains some lyrics that might make an 1850s-era Sunday school blush. Author and historian, Margaret DeBolt once wrote, “The references to courting would not have been allowed in a Sunday school program of that time, such as ‘Go it while you’re young.'”

Some speculate the singable tune was created to be paired with a few drinks. If the song really was conceived at the Simpson Tavern, maybe a little liquid encouragement had something to do with the spirited tune.

The Lyrics

The song begins in a rush of jingles, jangles, and Dashing through the snow / In a one-horse open sleigh / O’er the fields we go / Laughing all the way. With bright spirits and bells on bobtails ringing, the song sets off, illustrating a good time. What fun it is to ride and sing /A sleighing song tonight

Jingle bells, jingle bells, the famous chorus goes, Jingle all the way / Oh, what fun it is to ride / In a one-horse open sleigh, hey / Jingle bells, jingle bells / Jingle all the way / Oh, what fun it is to ride / In a one-horse open sleigh

The song races from chorus to chorus, giving glimpses of an unchaperoned snow day with a Miss Fanny Bright. A day or two ago, the song continues with its lesser-known verses, I thought I’d take a ride / And soon, Miss Fanny Bright / Was seated by my side / The horse was lean and lank / Misfortune seemed his lot / He got into a drifted bank / And then we got upsot.

The climactic event is interrupted by a breakout of the jangling chorus. A day or two ago / The story I must tell, the song continues, explaining the aftermath of the accident. I went out on the snow / And on my back I fell / A gent was riding by / In a one-horse open sleigh / He laughed as there I sprawling lie / But quickly drove away

After another round of choruses, the song concludes with a lesson to listeners. Now the ground is white / Go it while you’re young / Take the girls tonight / And sing this sleighing song / Just get a bobtailed bay / Two forty as his speed / Hitch him to an open sleigh / And crack, you’ll take the lead.

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