For a seemingly wholesome Yuletide melody, “Jingle Bells” is less Currier and Ives than you may think. From the story of its rebellious composer to its racy lyrics to its debut performance by minstrels in blackface, learn eight surprising facts about one of the most popular holiday songs.

J.P. Morgan’s uncle wrote “Jingle Bells.”

Sheet music of Jingle bells. (Credit: Brasil2)
Sheet music of Jingle bells. (Credit: Brasil2)

Born in 1822, songwriter James Lord Pierpont composed the music and wrote the lyrics for the holiday standard. His older sister, Juliet, married millionaire Junius Spencer Morgan, and their oldest child, John Pierpont Morgan, followed his father into the banking business and became one of the most powerful financiers of the Gilded Age.

Pierpont wasn’t much of a family man.

The commemorative plaque for James Lord Pierpont and his "Jingle Bells" in Savannah, Georgia, USA. (Credit: Deirdre)
The commemorative plaque for James Lord Pierpont and his “Jingle Bells” in Savannah, Georgia, USA. (Credit: Deirdre)

The “Jingle Bells” composer was the son of a fiercely abolitionist Unitarian minister, Reverend John Pierpont. From an early age, James Lord Pierpont sought adventures far away from his family in Boston. At the age of 14, he ran off from boarding school, joined the crew of a whaling ship and spent nearly a decade at sea. When the California Gold Rush struck in 1849, Pierpont left his wife and children behind in Massachusetts while he chased riches in the West. Returning home several years later no wealthier than when he left, Pierpont departed from his family again in 1853 to become the organist at a Unitarian church in Savannah, Georgia, that was pastored by his brother. Several months after the death of his first wife in 1856, the songwriter married a daughter of Savannah’s mayor and left the two children from his first marriage back in the North with their grandfather.

The “Jingle Bells” songwriter was a rebel in more ways than one.

"We Conquer, or Die!” sheet music. (Credit: Library of Congress)
“We Conquer, or Die!” sheet music. (Credit: Library of Congress)

While his father and brother took fiery stands against slavery, Pierpont became a staunch supporter of the Confederacy. When his brother was forced to close his church and return to the North in 1859 due to his abolitionist preaching, Pierpont remained in Savannah. When war broke out, he enlisted with the 1st Georgia Cavalry and served as a company clerk. His father, meanwhile, served on the Union side as chaplain of the 22nd Massachusetts Infantry. During the Civil War, Pierpont wrote Confederate anthems including “Strike for the South,” “We Conquer, or Die!” and “Our Battle Flag!” The songwriter remained in Georgia after the war and lived out his final years in Florida before his death in 1893.

“Jingle Bells” wasn’t the song’s original name.

Title page of "One Horse Open Sleigh." (Credit: Public Domain)
Title page of “One Horse Open Sleigh.” (Credit: Public Domain)

When the holiday ditty was first printed by a Boston music publishing house in 1857, it was released under the title “One Horse Open Sleigh.” When it was reissued two years later, the song had the more familiar title of “Jingle Bells.”

Two cities claim to be the song’s birthplace.

Plaque commemorating the authorship of the song "Jingle Bells" by James Pierpont at the Simpson Tavern (now 19 High Street) in Medford, Massachusetts. Plaque provided by the Medford Historical Society. (Credit: Public Domain)
Plaque commemorating the authorship of the song “Jingle Bells” by James Pierpont at the Simpson Tavern (now 19 High Street) in Medford, Massachusetts. Plaque provided by the Medford Historical Society. (Credit: Public Domain)

An historical plaque in the Boston suburb of Medford, Massachusetts, claims that Pierpont wrote his famous tune while nursing a drink in the Simpson Tavern in 1850, a year after his father took over a nearby Unitarian church. The date, if not the place, of the song’s composition is unlikely given that Pierpont probably wouldn’t have waited seven years to publish it and research by Boston University faculty member Kyna Hamill has found that he was still in California chasing gold at the time. In 1985, Savannah erected an historical marker of its own across from the Unitarian church where Pierpont was music director at the time the song was published, and possibly soon after it was written in the city. (Hamill surmises that Pierpont wrote the song in the early summer of 1857 while temporarily living in a Boston rooming house.) One thing that is not in dispute is that Pierpont drew upon snowbound memories of sleigh rides and sleigh races in Massachusetts, not Georgia, when writing the song.

“Jingle Bells” was not intended to be a Christmas song.

Winter sleigh ride, Prince Edward Island, Canada. (Credit: Barrett & MacKay)
Winter sleigh ride, Prince Edward Island, Canada. (Credit: Barrett & MacKay)

Although “Jingle Bells” is now a Yuletide staple, there is no mention of Christmas or any other holiday in the song. Some historical accounts report that the tune was first performed for a Thanksgiving service at the church of either Pierpont’s father or brother, but the lyrics might have been too risqué for an ecclesiastical audience. Given the songwriter’s rebellious nature, it shouldn’t be surprising that “Jingle Bells” has a bit of a rebel-without-a-cause attitude. The less-known verses of the song describe picking up girls, drag-racing on snow and a high-speed crash. The lyrics “go it while you’re young” in the final verse of the secular standard is hardly about a holy or silent night.

The song may have been first performed in blackface.

A set of the classic four-leaf shaped jingle bells. (Credit: WilshireImages)
A set of the classic four-leaf shaped jingle bells. (Credit: WilshireImages)

When “One Horse Open Sleigh” was first printed in September 1857, it was dedicated to John Ordway, a Boston doctor, composer and organizer of a troupe of white men performing in blackface called “Ordway’s Aeolians.” After his failed efforts as a Gold Rush prospector, Pierpont wrote one of his first songs, “The Returned Californian,” in 1852 to be performed by Ordway’s minstrels, and it appears the same was the case for about a dozen of his subsequent songs, including “Jingle Bells.” BU Today reports that Hamill has uncovered a playbill from the September 15, 1857, show by Ordway’s Aeolians that lists a performance of “One Horse Open Sleigh” by Johnny Pell, who was described as a member of the “dandy darkies.”

“Jingle Bells” was the first song ever broadcast from space.

Astronauts Walter M. Schirra Jr. (seated), command pilot, and Thomas P. Stafford, pilot, Gemini 6 prime crew, go through suiting up exercises in preparation for their forthcoming flight. (Credit: Public Domain)
Astronauts Walter M. Schirra Jr. (seated), command pilot, and Thomas P. Stafford, pilot, Gemini 6 prime crew, go through suiting up exercises in preparation for their forthcoming flight. (Credit: Public Domain)

Nine days before Christmas in 1965, the two astronauts aboard Gemini 6 had just completed a rendezvous with Gemini 7 when the crew suddenly gave a troubling report to Mission Control: “We have an object, looks like a satellite going from north to south, up in a polar orbit. He’s in a very low trajectory traveling from north to south and has a very high climbing ratio. It looks like it might even be a … Very low. Looks like he might be going to reenter soon. Stand by one … You might just let me try to pick up that thing.” The tense report of the unidentified flying object was suddenly broken by the sound of “Jingle Bells” with “Wally” Schirra playing a tiny harmonica accompanied by Tom Stafford shaking a handful of small sleigh bells they had brought along for the space voyage.