There is something worse than finding out there’s no Santa: for example, discovering that Jingle Bells is NOT a Christmas song, but a drag-racing ditty that talks up speed and picking up women.
While it was the inadvertent taunt of an elder brother that alerted me to the falseness of the Santa thing, it was the curiosity of a drinker in the front bar of my local pub that brought down the Jingle Bells legend.
The clue it seems is in the second line of the song, which talks of a “one-horse open sleigh”.
“Why is it a one-horse sleigh,” asked the curious drinker who had believed that Jingle Bells referred to Santa’s sleigh.
Santa, we agreed, drives a more efficient eight-reindeer version of this transport basic from the pre-automobile period.
By the time we went for our mobile phones and started googling to resolve the Jingle Bells query, there were other lyrics that started to cause us some concern.
Later that night I went into deep-google mode and read a plethora of sites that bring me to this conclusion – Jingle Bells is a winter song about sleigh racing by young tearaway blokes with an eye for women attracted by speed.
It was written, appropriately, in a pub.
Photos online show a plaque at 19 High Street in Medford, Massachusetts in the USA which commemorates the “birthplace” of “Jingle Bells”.
It says the song was written by a James Pierpont and “tells of the sleigh races held on Salem Street in the 1800s”.
The plaque, made by the Medford Historical Society, is at a site where the Simpson Tavern once stood.
Analysis of the song’s lyrics by music hisorian James J. Fuld in his Book of World-Famous Music shows that this song has nothing to do with Christmas.
Dashing through the snow
In a one-horse open sleigh
O’er the fields we go
Laughing all the way
Bells on bobtail ring’
Making spirits bright
What fun it is to ride and sing
A sleighing song tonight!
Jingle bells, jingle bells,
Jingle all the way.
Oh! what fun it is to ride In a one-horse open sleigh.
As Fuld says, in the second verse, the narrator takes a ride with a girl and loses control of the 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 into a drifted bank
And then we got upsot.
Fuld says the word “upsot” was used in the period as a reference to getting on the grog; other wordsmiths suggest its simply means a flip-out.
In the next verse, the sleigh driver falls out and a rival takes the mickey.
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.
In the last verse, he talks about how to pick up some girls, find a faster horse, and takes off at full speed.
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.
*(this is a rate of two minutes forty seconds to cover a mile, or 1600 metres, which suggests its the equivalent of a harness racer).
Finally, the bells.
Most sites confirm the obvious – that it was common for horses’ harnesses to have straps bearing bells since a horse-drawn sleigh in snow makes almost no noise.
It’s the equivalent of a loud exhaust system on a Holden Monaro.
So there you have it.
Jingle Bells has more in common with hoon drivers than it does with Santa – in South Australia there’d most likely be a sleigh-crushing law.
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