The Civil War: “Jingle Bells,” sung by the North and the South at Christmas

Strange as it may seem, “The Jingle Bells Church” in Savannah, Ga. was the first home of the song. Photo: One horse sleigh on the move

VIENNA, Va., December 12, 2012 —  While we can’t exactly claim “Jingle Bells” as a Civil War carol, it certainly was in existence by then and was probably among those home-style songs the soldiers on both sides sang on cold December nights while they were camped on a hill or bivouacked before a battle.

Its early name seems to have been “One Horse Open Sleigh,” and originally it was written by a church music director and organist,  James Pierpont (yes of “that” family) in Medford, Mass. It seems to have become most popular in Savannah, Georgia where Pierpont was serving in 1857, and finally obtained a copyright on it. The Unitarian Universalist Church there in Savannah is known as “the Jingle Bells Church” for that reason. The original church, however, closed because it was staunchly abolitionist and that viewpoint was not popular in the South.

A Song of the North and South

Since its roots trace to both Massachusetts and Georgia, it is interesting to note that there are historical markers in both states. The song represents the War Between the States in a very literal way.

Pierpont did have ties to the Civil War as he served with the Lamar Rangers, which became part of the Fifth Georgia Cavalry in the Confederate Army, serving as a clerk. His brother, John, fought for the Union, yet again another brother vs. brother situation, which many seem to disbelieve.

His musical ability continued as he wrote “Our Battle Flag,” “Strike for the South” and “We Conquer or Die,” all while serving in the army. At the same time his father was seeing military service as a chaplain in the Union Army in Washington, D.C. and later employed with the U.S. Treasury Department.

Unfortunately James died very poor, though he had a nephew, J. Pierpont Morgan who was said to have more money than the U.S. Treasury.

The jaunty carol’s fame and popularity continued into the 21st century as it was the first song — and therefore the first Christmas carol — performed in outer space, when astronauts Wally Schirra and Tom Stafford sang it on December 16, 1965, during the flight of Gemini 6.

The Full Lyrics 

Everyone knows the words to the chorus, but for those who want to sing the verses too, here it is:

Dashing through the snow

In a one horse open sleigh,

O’er the fields we go

Laughing all the way.

Bells on bob tails ring

Making spirits bright,

What fun it is to laugh and sing

A sleighing song tonight!

 

Oh, jingle bells, jingle bells

Jingle all the way

Oh, what fun it is to ride

In a one horse open sleigh

Jingle bells, jingle bells

Jingle all the way

Oh, what fun it is to ride

In a one horse open sleigh

 

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 in a drifted bank

And we got upsot

 

Jingle bells, jingle bells

Jingle all the way

Oh, what fun it is to ride

In a one horse open sleigh.

Jingle bells, jingle bells

Jingle all the way

Oh, what fun it is to ride

In a one horse open sleigh! 

There are two other stanzas that are frequently omitted, but since this song was written as a “how to” for young men to entertain their girlfriends, we include it here:

A day or two ago,

The story I must tell

I went out on the snow,

And on my back I fell;

A gent was riding by

In a one-horse open sleigh,

He laughed as there I sprawling lie,

But quickly drove away.

 

Now the ground is white

Go it while you’re young,

Take the girls tonight

and sing this sleighing song;

Just get a bobtailed bay

Two forty as his speed

Hitch him to an open sleigh

And crack! you’ll take the lead.

It is arguably the most popular of all Christmas song, sung by generations before us and, hopefully, will be sung by generations hereafter. Get the kids together, find some old bells like carriage-type bells, and ring and sing away.

Follow the column on Face Book or LinkedIn at Martha Boltz, and by email it’s MBoltz2846@aol.com Read more of Martha’s columns on The Civil War at the Communities at the Washington Times.


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Martha M. Boltz

Martha Boltz is a frequent contributor  to the long running Civil War features in The Washington Times America At War feature in the print and online editions. She has been a regular contributor to the original Civil War Page and its successor page since 1994, and is a civil war buff, historian, and writer. "Someone said that if we don't learn about the past, we are condemned to repeat it," she said, "and there are lessons of all sorts inherent in this bloody four-year period of our country's history."  She is a member of several heritage and lineage groups, as well as the Montgomery County Civil War Round Table. Her standing invitation is, "come on down - check the blog - send me your comments and let's have fun with its history and maybe learn something at the same time."

 

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