Earlier today whilst most of the country was huddled under a white blanket of snow, a friend remarked to me that all the songs which feature snow are Christmas ones.
It turns out that she’s right. Well almost. Jingle Bells is performed nowadays as a Christmas song and has been since the early 20th century. This was after a recording was made by the Edison Male Quartette in 1898 on an Edison cylinder, as part of a Christmas medley entitled “Sleigh Ride Party.”
However, the lyrics don’t actually mention Christmas at all. And for good reason. The original song was entitled ‘The One Horse Open Sleigh’ and was written as a comical song in the 1850 by James Pierpont and used in minstrel shows at the time. It has been reported, though not proven, that he wrote his popular winter song for his father’s Sunday School class for Thanksgiving and it proved so popular that it was sung again at Christmas time.
It is an unsettled question where and when Pierpont originally composed the song that would become known as “Jingle Bells”. A plaque at 19 High Street in the center of Medford Square in Medford, Massachusetts commemorates the “birthplace” of “Jingle Bells,” and claims that Pierpont wrote the song there in 1850, at what was then the Simpson Tavern. According to the Medford Historical Society, the song was inspired by the town’s popular sleigh races during the 19th century.
“Jingle Bells” was originally copyrighted with the name “One Horse Open Sleigh” on September 16, 1857. Mrs Otis Waterman, one of Pierpoint’s friends, described the song as a “merry little jingle”, which became part of its new name when published in 1859 under the revised title of “Jingle Bells, or the One Horse Open Sleigh.” The song has since passed into the public domain.
The date of the song’s copyright casts some doubt on the theory that Pierpont wrote the song in Medford, since by that date he was the organist and music director of the Unitarian Church in Savannah, Georgia, where his brother, Rev. John Pierpont Jr., was employed. In August of the same year, James Pierpont married the daughter of the mayor of Savannah. He stayed on in the city even after the church closed due to its abolitionist leanings.
“Jingle Bells” was often used as a drinking song at parties: people would jingle the ice in their glasses as they sang. The double-meaning of “upsot” was thought humorous, as a sleigh ride gave an unescorted couple a rare chance to be together, unchaperoned, in distant woods or fields, with all the opportunities that afforded.
So there you have it, technically there is a song about snow which isn’t a Christmas song, even though nowadays it is used as such.
Jules Addison takes delight in finding an obscure fact to change popular belief…. He is also aware, just before you all write in to complain, that almost certainly there are other songs which mention snow and are not Christmas songs!