This Christmas Song Was Originally Intended For Thanksgiving

Christmas Day has come and gone but it’s still the holiday season. Many are enjoying time off to relax, catch up on Christmas films, and prepare for the upcoming new year…and decade. Some even continue to listen to Christmas tunes until January rolls around.

Christmas carolers
Christmas carolers 2012 | Chris Jackson/Getty Images for Vodafone

One family favorite is Jingle Bells. It’s one of the first Christmas songs children are taught and is passed down from generation to generation. Jingle Bells is renowned as one of the greatest holiday jingles ever written but it didn’t start out that way. The song was originally intended for Thanksgiving and it’s lyrics lent to something a lot more sinister than holiday cheer. 

Who is the author of ‘Jingle Bells,’ James Lord Piperpont?

Pierpont was born in 1822 in Boston, Massachusetts. He’s a member of a talented and wealthy family. His older sister, Juliet, married millionaire Junius Spencer Morgan. Their son, and Piperpoint’s nephew, was John Piperpont Morgan – like his father, he went into the banking business and became one of the most powerful financiers of the Gilded Age.

James Lord Piperpont
Portrait of James Lord Piperpont

Though Piperpont wrote a song that was transformed into a holiday classic, he wasn’t much of a family man. In fact, many would consider him a Scrooge. Growing up as the son of a strict abolitionist may have played a part in his demeanor. 

From an early age, Pierpont sought to be independent of his family and life in Boston. He fled boarding school at the age of 14 and joined the crew of a whaling ship where he spent nearly a decade at sea. He eventually married and had children but left his family behind to chase wealth after the California Gold Rush struck in 1849. He returned home poor and bitter, leaving his family once again in 1853 to become an organist for a church in Savannah, Georgia that his brother owned. His job ignited his career in composing. 

His family were against slavery and used their respective ministries to advocate on behalf of slaves but Piperpont supported the confederacy and used his music to do so. He later married the daughter of the Mayor of Savannah and had two more children after his first wife died.

How ‘Jingle Bells’ became a Christmas anthem 

The original Jingle Bells lyrics are a hint to the contentious relationship between Piperpont and his father. The second verse is an insight into an abolitionist father who is against drinking and his son breaks away from his father’s shadow by rebelling, which includes the use of alcohol. Some of the second verse reads:

Jingle Bells sheet music
Jingle Bells sheet music

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

The theory about how the song became a Thanksgiving anthem is analyzed on CBC.  

According to History.com, the song has two cities that claim to be its birthplace: Savannah and Medford (Boston). Both cities have historic plaques that explain its origin and meaning.

Jingle Bells Medford plaque
“Jingle Bells” Medford plaque

In Boston, the plaque claims that Pierpont wrote what would become “Jingle Bells” while nursing a drink in the Simpson Tavern in 1850. 

Jingle Bells Savannah plaque
“Jingle Bells” Savannah plaque

The theory of “Jingle Bells” starting out as a Thanksgiving tune stems from the people of Savannah. He moved to the city after his first wife died, married the mayor’s daughter, and soon became the church’s music director. During a Thanksgiving service, he led the congregation in a rendition of Jingle Bells. Churchgoers loved it so much that he performed it again a month later at Christmas. As a result, Jingle Bells became a Christmas song — specifically for the city of Savannah.

Source: YouTube

Ironically, Jingle Bells wasn’t the original name of the song, which also adds to the speculation that it wasn’t created for Christmas. When the song was first printed by a Boston music publishing house in 1857, it was released under the title “One Horse Open Sleigh.Two years later it was reissued under the title, “Jingle Bells.”