What fun it is to ride and sing
A sleighing song tonight!
For many people, the song “Jingle Bells” is so deeply etched in memory it’s hard to recall when we learned it. Written by Unitarian James Lord Pierpont (1822-1893), “Jingle Bells” is among the most popular American songs of all time, and although it is strongly associated with Christmas, this story of a wintertime sleigh ride contains not a single holiday reference.
Puzzling out the origins of “Jingle Bells” is something of a holiday tradition itself, with one predominant question: Did Pierpont compose the song in Medford, Massachusetts, or Savannah, Georgia? Pierpont was a Massachusetts native whose father, noted writer and abolitionist the Rev. John Pierpont, served several Unitarian congregations, including what is now the Unitarian Universalist Church of Medford. His brother, the Rev. John Pierpont, Jr., also an abolitionist, was minister to the Unitarian Church of Savannah. James Pierpont provided music to both churches, first Medford and later Savannah, where he remained after his brother returned north and the Civil War began. Plaques in both cities claim birthright to the song. On its website, the UU Church of Savannah proclaims itself “the Jingle Bells Church,” noting that Pierpont copyrighted the song in 1857 in Savannah, while a plaque at the site of Medford’s Simpson Tavern asserts that the song was written there in 1850. Other accounts have it that “Jingle Bells” was written for Thanksgiving, and performed by the Sunday school (Medford’s or Savannah’s, depending on your allegiance). A Savannah historian begs to differ: no mid-1800s Sunday school would have permitted such racy lyrics as “Go it while you’re young.”
The details of his life show Pierpont to have been, in the words of one scholar, “a rebellious musician with a bad reputation.” He left his wife and children in Massachusetts not once but twice: first for the gold rush (his song “The Returned Californian” recounts that failure) and later for Savannah. Soon after his wife Millicent died, Pierpont remarried, this time to the daughter of Savannah’s mayor. In sharp contrast to his abolitionist family, Pierpont served in the Confederate army and composed songs like “Strike for the South” and “Our Battle Flag.”
While most debate between the Savannah and Medford camps is cordial, reporter Russ Bynum recounts this rather puffed-up exchange in 1989: “We unequivocally state,” wrote Medford Mayor Michael McGlynn to Savannah Mayor John Rousakis, “that ‘Jingle Bells’ was composed . . . in the town of Medford.” Rousakis wrote back to “finally and formally proclaim . . . Savannah, Georgia, as the birthplace of ‘Jingle Bells.’”
At least we may be reasonably sure which place inspired the song. In the nineteenth century, popular races took place between Medford and nearby Malden in (you guessed it) one-horse open sleighs, and taking a corner at speed could certainly get you “upsot” in a “drifted bank.” So, did Pierpont write the song just after watching a race, or later, in Savannah? As reporter Sean Bowditch put it, “[t]here’s no holiday throwdown” to settle it. It’s just a great song, with a curious history. The final word goes to those who’ve recorded “Jingle Bells”—from Bing Crosby to Ella Fitzgerald, Luciano Pavarotti to the astronauts aboard NASA’s Gemini 6—and to those who still sing it at caroling parties or even (a lucky few) in sleighs decked out with bells.
This article appeared in the Winter 2014 issue of UU World (pages 56-57). Illustration (above) by N. Currier (1813-88) and J.M. Ives (1824-95) (Private collection/Bridgeman Images).