The tune, Jingle Bells, is firmly associated with Christmas; just like Santa Claus, reindeer, family gatherings, candy canes, and presents. Ironically, the song was originally written for another holiday.
James S. Pierpont assisted his father, the pastor, with the church choir in his hometown of Medford, Mass. Sometime around 1840, his father asked him to write some special music for the Thanksgiving church service. At that time, Thanksgiving was the more important holiday than Christmas. Later that day, as he watched out the window, he observed the young men racing each other by riding their sleds down the hills. Thinking back, he remembered when he would join his friends in sled races and ride in horse-drawn sleighs with bells that chimed with each horse’s footstep.
He began to hum a little ditty.
Believing that the tune was a good beginning for the holiday song his father requested, Pierpont put on his heavy winter coat and, walking through the thick snow, went to the home of Mrs. Otis Waterman. Since she had the only piano in Medford, Mrs. Waterman frequently let Pierpont use it to create music. As she answered the door, all he had to say was “I have a little tune in my head” and she let him inside.
As Pierpont worked on the melody, Mrs. Waterman made the comment that “that is a merry little jingle you have there.” Later that evening, as Pierpont was writing the lyrics to match the tune, he combined the term “jingle” with his observations of the day’s sled races and his memories of driving around in horse-drawn sleighs to create a holiday classic.
The song, One Horse Open Sleigh, was performed by the choir during the Thanksgiving service. It was extremely popular. In fact, it was so well received that the church members asked Pierpont if the choir would perform it again at the Christmas service. This was significant because the song mentioned dating and betting, two activities not traditionally considered appropriate for a church song. Due to all the talk about the song after the Thanksgiving service, many people from nearby towns attended the Christmas service just to hear to the song.
Again, people like it so much, they brought the music back to their own community churches and it began to spread. Because people first heard the piece of music during the Christmas holidays, it became associated with Christmas, instead of Thanksgiving.
Within 20 years, this holiday song became one of the best known caroling songs in the country. The images portrayed in the song – of snow, sleighs, and jingle bells – has influenced more than a century of Christmas images in greeting cards, books, movies, and songs. Those images will forever be associated with the Christmas season.