The Virtual Musical Advent Calendar, December 7: Jingle Bells
As our Virtual Advent Calendar has already shown, there are a lot of songs in the Classic Holiday canon that were never meant to be Christmas songs. But Jingle Bells is unique for being the one Christmas staple that was originally written to commemorate a completely different holiday altogether. If this seems a little odd in retrospect, it is all the more odd when considering the author’s pedigree. Displaced Yankee and all-round scoundrel James Lord Pierpont worked his whole life to avoid being a product of his birthplace and era, but destiny wants what destiny wants.
Born in 1822 to a Boston Unitarian pastor, Pierpont penned his now-classic song in 1857. As we shall see later in this series, the pious, joyful, and family-centered celebration of Christmas, even among the faithful, is a thoroughly modern invention. More than that, Christmas becoming Christmas was the result of a very long and deliberate battle to make it so — and the biggest foot soldiers in this battle were the Boston Unitarians of the mid-19th-century.
Pierpont, however, was something of an entrepreneur with a get-rich-quick streak. At the age of 14, he tired of boarding school life and ran away to join a whaling ship’s crew and make his fortune. When poverty followed, he joined the Navy in the hopes of becoming an officer and parlaying his rank into other opportunities. Three years later he gave up the Navy and returned to his father’s church, where he married a member of congregation. Three years and three children later, Pierpont walked out on his family to seek his fortune in the California gold rush. This investment turned out to be as fruitful as all of his others. He tried his hand at several businesses, including photography, but none really panned out. When a fire eventually destroyed most of his earthly possessions, he returned to his family yet again. Shortly thereafter, his wife passed away, and Pierpont went to live with his brother in Savannah and try his hand at becoming a professional songwriter.
Ever the opportunist, Pierpont largely wrote songs specifically catered to his adopted home. In short order he began to churn out songs for minstrel shows. As tensions between the North and South began to boil over, the Boston native began writing patriotic Confederacy numbers, including We Conquer or Die and Strike For the South. It was Pierpont’s belief that the Confederacy would surely win the war, and that his pro-South songs would pay royalties to his children long after his death. Even Jingle Bells is something of an homage to his terrible business foresight. He believed that the celebration of Christmas was something of a passing fancy, and that the holiday where real money would be made over time was Thanksgiving. It was for this holiday that Pierpont wrote the song, not the one that falls on December 25.
And yet somehow, despite a lifetime of making bad miscalculations where commerce was concerned, success somehow managed to seek out and find Pierpont despite his best efforts. Regretfully for him, however, it did so well after his death in 1893. Jingle Bells would not become a beloved classic until the 20th century, long after his children had ceased bothering to renew the copyright.
(Pierpont’s opportunistic zeal and self-promotion did pay off indirectly, however. In 1857 Pierpont tried to convince Thomas Purse that he was both a gentleman of good stock and a man of destiny. Purse, an old-money patriarch and mayor of Savannah at the time, apparently agreed, and gave his daughter Eliza permission to wed Pierpont and bring him into the family.)
The song we sing today is the same one Pierpont penned, save two minor details: It was originally titled One Horse Open Sleigh, and Pierpont’s version read “oh what joy it is to ride.” It began to grow in popularity from the 1910s through the 1930s, but it would be Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sister’s 1943 recording that would catapult Jingle Bells into its current universally-known status.
The number of diverse artists who have recorded Jingle Bells over the year is sort of astonishing, especially when you consider its Mary-Had-A-Little-Lamb-like melodic simplicity and utter lack of lyrical depth with which to work. Notable (and, frankly, curious) examples of these artists include the Beatles, Sinatra, Yello, Lisa Loeb, Duke Ellington, Chicago, and Pearl Jam. It has been famously played off-key by Schroeder, and annoyingly recorded by dogs and cats alike. Bobby Helms used it as inspiration for one of the worst pop-rock Christmas songs ever. It has become testimony to Batman’s body odor. It was even the first song ever sung in outer space.
Plus, it’s the only Christmas song where we all get to yell “HEY!” in the middle. That seems like it should count for something.
 A minstrel show was a type of live comedy/variety production that was popular in the South both before and after the Civil War. It featured white performers in blackface singing, dancing, telling jokes and performing slapstick. The songs and jokes varied from show to show, but all were centered on the lampooning of African Americans for being lazy, stupid, superstitious and dishonest. The first motion picture that featured sound, the thrice–remade Jazz Singer, featured Al Jolson as a minstrel show performer. Jolson’s character was not meant to be ironic or satiric. The movie was made in 1927, which gives you an idea of how long this abysmal practice was considered acceptable.