In a one-horse open sleigh
O'er the hills we go
Laughing all the way!
Bells on bobtail ring
Making spirits bright
Oh what sport to ride and sing
A sleighing song tonight.
I hate to be the one to tell you if no one else has, but "Jingle Bells" is not a Christmas song. Or maybe that's good news, because if you're going through Christmas music withdrawal in this week between Christmas and New Year's Eve, it's a good excuse to keep singing it. But either way, there's no mention of Christmas in it at all, but rather a lively portrayal of youth, dating, and winter fun.
Clermont Livingston (1817-1895), the patriarch of the estate here during the mid 19th century, sleighing was a bright spot in his winter season.
"The sleighing is splendid & has been so all the month..." he wrote his brother on Christmas eve of 1845.
Sleighing was one of the seasonal markers of Clermont's life. When he wrote in his diary he reported the sleighing conditions in the Hudson Valley as regularly as he recorded the progress of seasonal crops:
12/1/56-- "Went to church in a sleigh yesterday"
2/16/57-- "Sleighs still cross [the Hudson River] to Saugerties"
3/13/57-- "Tolerable sleighing in the woods"
From December to March, Clermont's preferred mode of transportation was a jingling sleigh. "I hope we may have sleighing again..." he wrote in January of 1847 after warm weather had melted the snow and made sleighing only possible on the packed snows of the roads, instead of through the woods and on the ice.
1880 story recorded, "It is amusing to observe the change the first snow produces in the country village. It so quickens everything. The long-unused imple- ments for path-making are ferreted out, sleighs are dragged down from the barn- loft, harnesses are oiled, and accompanying bells 'rubbed up.'"
Another 1855 image (available at the Library of Congress website) seems to view it as part of the hassle of winter travel. Horses (as usual adorned with plenty of bells) struggle and leap through heaps of snow. Children hurl snow balls at anyone they can (in particular an African American man gets hit in the face in the lower right hand corner), and one woman appears to be in the process of falling out into the melee.
The horse was lean and lank
Misfortune seemed his lot
He got into a drifting bank
And we__ we got upsot!
There was also a bit of a rowdy air of youth that could go with sleighing. It seems to be among the most common associations that have survived the years. Speed and racing went hand-in-hand with dating. "Jingle Bells" portrays this with a certain vigor:
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.
With this verse, you really get more of a sense about racing and dating as they were associated with the sport. Indeed, a whole myriad of prints and songs from the mid to late nineteenth century capture these aspects until you start to feel that the whole activity was quite the dating scene for its time. Rushing winds and speed made sleighing well suited to competitive young men (and possibly competitive young women), while the relative privacy of being out of the home and out of sight of parents fostered the possibilities of romance.
Phrases like "swiftly ride, swiftly glide" in a later song titled Jingle Bells (not Pierpont's original "One Horse Open Sleigh," which is now known as "Jingle Bells") and also "Crowded full of laughing boys and girls" in "The Sleigh Bell Song," (above at right), support the ideas ofrowdy, youthful fun.* Even Godey's Ladies Book stories have no shortage of romantic references to boys and girls sleighing together: "..The boys are going to get two great crates, each to be drawn by four horses, so that we can be pretty well stowed in for warmth and fun," gushed one excited girl in an 1880 story.
The additional nuance of crowding boys and girls together under heavy blankets (albeit also in numerous layers of clothing) also carried some romantic overtones. When Miss Martha's fiance Tom takes another girl for a ride in his sleigh, her heart threatens to break in Martha's Mistake, published in Godey's Ladies Book, "Tom bent to arrange the buffalo robe more closelv about his companion, and said something which made them both laugh, and Miss Martha turned quickly from the window with a pain at her heart."
All this leads me to wonder about Clermont Livingston, the young father and husband, dashing about the Hudson Valley in his sleigh in the 1840s, 50s, and 60s. Was this really just his practical method of winter transportation, or was he also reliving some youthful exploits in the back of his mind? With the reigns in his hands (instead of a chauffeur), he was in control of the speed and the vehicle. Was his wife Cornelia at beside him, recalling cold afternoons racing around under a heavy buffalo robe with a handsome young man at her side?
One thing is for sure, winter had many of the cold, dreary affects that we ascribe to it today. Frozen fingers, short days, and a sense of isolation could get Victorian Americans down, but they did their best to combat the season with a mix of shared and physical activities that became deeply embedded in the social fabric of the culture. Sleighing was more than just a means of transportation, and the bells that accompanied it were more than just a Christmas song.
The next time you find yourself (or the nearest exuberant child) breaking out into a chorus of "Jingle Bells," take a moment to remember it as a time piece of nineteenth century life. And be sure to sing more than just the first verse!
*It should be noted that lots of 19th century sheet music was also written to be shared as a social activity that included both young men and women so references to "dating" are not all that surprising.