“Jingle Bells” is arguably the quintessential Christmas song — despite the fact that it doesn’t mention Christmas and that it was written as a drinking song about Thanksgiving races by a man most would have described as a real jerk. Merry Christmas!
The story behind one of the most enduring Christmas songs begins on the banks of the Mystic River in Medford, Mass., just a bit upriver from Boston, There, you’ll find a plaque that reads, in part:
Jingle Bells composed here.
On this site stood the Simpson Tavern, where in 1850, James Pierpont wrote the song Jingle Bells.
CBC reports on the decidedly-unromantic story of “Jingle Bells,” according to Kyna Hamill, professor of literature at Boston University and vice-president of the Medford Historical Society.
“Medford is home to a series of sleigh races that used to occur on a street called Salem Street, and because of this event, which pretty much happened in the middle of the 19th century, these sleigh races — which you could pretty much call drag races — down this street was one of the most popular events,” Hamill said. “The influence and inspiration of the song, we believe came from those races.”
Hamill described James Lord Pierpoint, the man behind the song as “kind of a jerk, actually,” a wanderer who frequently chased riches across the nation, leaving his wife alone with his father. When she died, he didn’t even attend her funeral. Instead, he promptly remarried and abandoned his children.
As for the song itself, Hamill pointed out the song is more about getting wasted than it is about spreading yuletide cheer.
“If you think about the fact that one of the great industries of Medford was rum-making, and if you really think about the lyrics of the song, with the lens that these are drag races that are happening at top speed down the centre of this street, one of the suggestions is that it’s actually a drinking song,” she said. “Some of the words are actually associated with the idea that this is a song you sing while you’re drunk, talking about an event that happened while they were drunk.”
Take a look at the second, oft-forgotten, verse of “Jingle Bells:”
A day or two ago
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.
Hamill insisted that the song, if you want to get into the psychology of it, concerns a man who’s breaking away from his father’s rigid anti-alcohol stance to define himself… Yeah, we don’t quite get it either.
“People who love the history of Christmas will probably not like this answer, but I think that there’s something about the relationship between the father and the son which kind of shows how he doesn’t want to be like his father in this song. He wants to have fun.”
There’s some dissent about the origins of the song, as many in Savannah, Georgia believe the people of Medford are stealing their song. The story goes that Pierpoint, who moved to the city and became a pastor after his first wife’s death, first sang “Jingle Bells” to his congregation shortly before Thanksgiving. The congregation apparently loved it, and Pierpoint led them in a renditionon Christmas. The rest, as they say, is history.