The most popular Christmas song in America, Jingle Bells has not always been associated with Christmas and its origins remain a controversial mystery to this day. Written in the 1850's by James Lord Pierpont, an uncle of the famously wealthy financier John Pierpont Morgan it pays homage to the youthful fun of the then popular winter sleigh races.
The Life Of James Lord Pierpont
James Lord Pierpont was born on April 25, 1822 in Boston as one of six children of John Pierpont and Mary Sheldon Lord. James grew up in a strict and very religious family. At the time of his birth, his father, who was also known for his poetry, held the strongest abolitionist views, which he fervently preached in his capacity as pastor of Boston's Unitarian Hollister Street Church.
The earliest known reference to his later fame as the author of Jingle Bells dates back to James' time in a New Hampshire boarding school where his parents had sent him in 1832 at the tender age of ten. In a homesick letter to his beloved mother, James lyrically waxed about the elation he had experienced during a horse drawn sleigh ride through the snowy winter landscape of New England. Apparently, life in boarding school was not all fun and games though, as James decided to call it quits and made a daring escape from the stifling atmosphere of his school in 1836. His desire to flee from the horrors of corporeal punishment and zealous teachers must have been very real and all consuming. Making sure that no one would find him or could drag him back to school, he boarded a ship and sailed as far off as the West Coast of the United States.
Unfortunately, nothing is known about his adventures aboard the ship or of the time he spent on land, but we do know that eventually, he found his way back home to his parents. Nine years after he ran away from boarding school, James popped up again in Troy, New York where his father was now serving as a pastor. Following his wandering years, James decided it was time to settle down and started looking for a suitable wife. He found one in Millicent Cowee, whom he married a few years after arriving in Troy (the actual date of the marriage is unknown). Pierpont's marriage with Cowee resulted in two children, John and Mary who, in true patriotic spirit would go on to become a Daughter of the American Revolution.
In 1849, while his parents moved to Medford, Massachusetts James followed the lure of the gold rush and traveled to San Francisco where he set up shop. Never one to have his freedom restricted, he stashed his wife and children with his parents and was ready to make his fortune. Unfortunately, his prospects of making it big out West were cut short when his business was destroyed by a fire, which subsequently forced to him declare bankruptcy. With his business in shambles, James left San Francisco for Medford and eventually found himself in Savannah, Georgia where his brother was serving as pastor with the Unitarian church.
James, whose wife and children were still living with his parents up north had arrived at what would become a turning point in his life. With no money and no job, James turned to the only thing he knew – music. He taught organ and singing to make ends meet, and eventually started writing his first tunes, some of which were even published and had such illustrious titles as “The Colored Coquette” and “Ring The Bell, Fanny”.
In 1856 disaster struck when his wife Millicent died of tuberculosis, but his spirits seemed to not have been too dampened by her tragic death as he wasted no time in finding another wife. He obviously did not need to look very long or far – in 1857 he took Eliza Jane Purse, whose father was the mayor of Savannah as his second wife. The marriage produced four children. While James settled into his new life with Eliza, he kept the convenient arrangement of his children John and Mary living with their grandparents in Medford. He kept busy with his new wife and with composing music. Little did he know that what he had published in the summer of 1857, titled “One Horse Open Sleigh”, would later become the most popular Christmas song in America. Apparently, Pierpont was not too happy with the original title, as he republished it two years later under a new name, “Jingle Bells Or The One Horse Open Sleigh”.
When the Civil War broke out, Pierpont served the Confederacy by volunteering with the Fifth Georgia Cavalry, and even composed several patriotic pieces for the military, including such long forgotten marches as “Strike For The South” and “Our Battle Flag”. After his service in the military, James and Eliza left Savannah for a small town in rural Georgia and eventually ended up in Florida. He spent the rest of his life dedicated to music – teaching, composing, and playing music. Thirteen years before James' death, his son Juriah successfully applied for a renewal of the copyright to “Jingle Bells Or The One Horse Open Sleigh”, forever establishing his father as the author.
On August 5, 1893 James Lord Pierpont died in Winter Haven, Florida. He was buried in Savannah.
Medford vs. Savannah – Who Can Lay The Claim To Fame?
The creation is surrounded by various legends and stories, none of which historians have been able to confirm with certainty. Over the years, a bitter rivalry has ensued between Medford and Savannah, the two towns that claim “ownership” as the original locations where James Lord Pierpont composed “The One Horse Open Sleigh”.
Medford's claim to fame stems from a rumored visit James Lord Pierpont paid the town in 1851. Supposedly, the fun loving Pierpont was invited to the house of one Mrs. Otis Waterman, who was the proprietor of a local bed and breakfast. The story goes that James and the Mrs. got on quite well, and on a whim he decided to play his latest composition for her, which happened to be “The One Horse Open Sleigh”. Mrs. Waterman was instantly smitten with it and proclaimed it to be a “very merry little jingle”, prompting Pierpont to incorporate the word jingle into the song's title. However colorful, this version of the geographical origin seems highly doubtful given that in 1851 Pierpont was still languishing in San Francisco, dealing with the aftermath of his failed business which had been destroyed by a fire. The fire had most likely occurred in 1851. There is some historical evidence, however that “The One Horse Open Sleigh” was recited during a Thanksgiving mass sometime in the 1840's in Medford. It was so favorably received by the audience that it was again performed for Christmas mass that same year, establishing it as a Christmas favorite ever since.
Today, it is widely assumed that “The One Horse Open Sleigh” was composed when James Lord Pierpont lived in Savannah. Two facts strongly support Savannah as the “birthplace”. First, he worked there as an organist for the local church when it was first copyrighted in 1857. And second, shortly before the copyright was granted Pierpont had married Eliza Purse in Savannah. As with the Medford version, it was supposedly first recited during a Thanksgiving mass and then due to the audience liking it so much it was again performed for Christmas.
A Christmas Song?
No matter how charming the legends surrounding the origins of this tune may be, one thing is for sure - “The One Horse Open Sleigh” was most definitely not written as a song with Christmas in mind. Rather, it is more likely that the lyrics reflect Pierpont's fond memories of his childhood in New England where winters were filled with the thrill of racing through the snow covered landscape in open sleighs drawn by horses. It is also doubtful that it was ever intended to be recited by a children's choir, as some would like us to believe. Given the flirty innuendoes of some text passages it seems more of a Victorian era version of a “cruising” song where youthful fun and first (albeit very innocent) encounters with the opposite sex play the main role.