In the fall 1857 a new song by James Pierpont celebrated the popular winter pastime of sleighing and sleigh racing. While sleighing is now a rarity, the song it inspired has become a Christmas time standard. It is difficult to believe now that at one time “Jingle Bells” was considered more of a Thanksgiving song.
“Jingle Bells” was written in the waning of what is known as the Little Ice Age. In the 1870s sleighing season had started at Thanksgiving and lasted until April. By the 1890s New York newspapers reported only six weeks of good sleighing. With warmer temperatures and cars came the demise of the sleigh market.
In 1889 about 120,000 sleighs were produced; by 1900 most Eastern sleigh manufacturers were out of business. Today we are left with a much sung song with a few confusing terms, so to help with enjoyment of this winter tradition, here are a few definitions. “Bobtail” refers to a horse with its tail cut short so it wouldn’t get caught in the wheels or interfere with the reins. In the third verse “two forty for its speed” means the horse could trot a mile in two minutes and forty seconds.
Sleigh traffic at busy intersections and the use of only one track by sleighs going in both directions were early safety concerns. Also, sleighs are almost soundless in the snow. Sleigh bells were introduced as a safety measure because the sound of bells travels long distances in the cold, still air. The song title “Jingle bells” refers to the bells attached to the horse so other horses and drivers could hear the virtually silent sleigh.