If you ask me, the horse in "Jingle Bells" has the worst of it. One poor horse dragging frolicking merrymakers across the countryside, bells clanging around its sensitive ears with every footfall, spurred to dash by the cracking sound of a whip, and, of course, its tail cut short for who knows what reason.
Nevertheless, the holiday favorite's rollicking refrain does hang on one traditional element. Jingling bells makes a lot of sense when you take your sleigh out for a ride on a brisk winter's night. Runners gliding across new, soft snow are said to be nearly silent and, at a blind crossing, those bells are as good as a car horn. And so begins the imagery of impetuous winter fun in the cheery, up-tempo "Jingle Bells."
Musician and bandleader Fred Greenwald has been playing "Jingle Bells" at concerts and dances since he became a professional trumpet player at 15 years old in the late 1940s. Back then, playing jobs several nights a week in northern Wisconsin, the band took a few liberties with the simple song. "We improvised when we played it; we didn't just play it straight," says Greenwald. "We gave it a jazzy effect."
Greenwald most enjoys playing "Jingle Bells" for young audiences, though. "It's fun when you play it for kids. That's a happy time. They get a picture of a sleigh riding along in the snow. They sing along. It means Christmas."
It didn't originally mean Christmas, though. According to nearly a dozen references in public library books and online sources consulted for the song's history, James Pierpont wrote "One Horse Open Sleigh" for a Sunday school presentation, most likely around Thanksgiving of 1857, in either Boston, Mass., or Savannah, Ga., and it had a more classical musical feel to it. Later, the name was changed to "Jingle Bells" and the music became the lilting, peppy tune known around the world today.
Wikipedia's short list of artists who have recorded "Jingle Bells" numbers more than 120, from the Andrews Sisters to Andy Williams. "Everything Christmas" by WaterBrook Press cites "Jingle Bells" as the first song broadcast from space by Gemini 6 astronauts in 1965.
To be a true aficionado, however, one has to appreciate more than the trivia. A few fine points in the lyrics include: "bobtail" as the length of the horse's tail, not his name; "jingle" is what you do, the imperative verb to ring. It is not a type of bell, according to Irene Chalmers' "The Great American Christmas Almanac," and there is more to the story than a young couple careening across pristine snow on a lark. Verse two has the revelers lose control of the sleigh, run headlong into a snow bank and get "sot" (drunk). In the next two verses, the gentleman falls onto his back in the snow and another sleigh rider passes him by, laughing all the way, and finally, advice for the young: Go sleigh riding while you still can.
None of that matters, though, when the carolers come to your house or it's time for the audience sing-along at the Christmas pageant or the hot chocolate is being passed around after a sledding party. As Greenwald says, "the whole thing is joyous." Everyone knows the lyrics; it's an easy tune; and it's fun to sing. So skip the story and sing with gusto -- all together now! "Dashing through the snow..."