The words and music for this Christmas classic were written by James S. Pierpont, a popular American composer in 1857, with the title of "One Horse Open Sleigh."
Pierpont was a member of a staunch Unitarian Church family, and his father was a minister. It was originally written for a local Sunday school entertainment on Thanksgiving Day in Savannah, Georgia. Its catchy tune was soon taken up by Christmas revelers.
You probably know the chorus and the first verse of this song ("Dashing through the snow..."), but three more verses were published.
The song is typically sung with just the opening chorus, first verse, and one last chorus, making it a tidy tune for children.
The ensuing verses flesh out more of the story, but as attention spans diminished, they got truncated. The second verse finds our sleigh rider picking up a girl and heading for adventure:
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
We got into a drifted bank
And then we got upsot
In the third verse, the rider falls out of his sleigh and is laughed at by a passer-by. In most popular recordings of the song this one is omitted:
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.
The fourth verse seems to be encouraging some kind of sleigh drag race:
Now the ground is white
Go it while you're young
Take the girls to night
And sing this sleighing song
Just get a bob-tailed bay
Two forty as his speed
Hitch him to an open sleigh
And crack, you'll take the lead
Some of the many artists to record this song include Jim Reeves, The Brian Setzer Orchestra, Lawrence Welk, Andy Williams, Michael W. Smith and Kimberley Locke. Perry Como took the song to #74 in the US in 1958. The only other charting version of this song came in 2019 when, thanks to streaming, Frank Sinatra's version peaked at #49.
One of the more unusual versions is by The Singing Dogs, which was created by a Danish man named Don Charles and featured four dogs barking out the tune. It was originally released in 1955 as a medley with "Pat-A-Cake" and "Three Blind Mice," but in 1970 the song got some attention and was re-released with just "Jingle Bells."
This was the first song played in space. On December 16, 1965, astronauts Wally Schirra and Tom Stafford were aboard Gemini 6 when they played this on a harmonica and bells to Mission Control. Both instruments are displayed at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.
Bertrand - Paris, France
An unusual instrumental version of this song called "Twistin' Bells" made #49 US for Santo & Johnny in 1960. The title was designed to capitalize on the twist craze, but it was really more of a surf version featuring a steel guitar.
Every December, an old battle known as "The Jingle Bell Wars" rages on. The folks of Medford, Massachusetts, claim their town is the real birthplace of the famous holiday tune, as Pierpont was still living there in 1850 when it was allegedly written at the local Simpson Tavern. This isn't a battle the South is prepared to lose: Savannah's tourism guide maintains "Jingle Bells" was penned in the very church it premiered. That doesn't stop Medford from holding an annual Jingle Bell Festival or dubbing itself "The Jingle Bell City."
"We take full ownership of it," says Medford Mayor Stephanie M. Burke in 2016. "It's got a long history, and we're proud of it."
Mark Steyn, author of A Song For The Season, doesn't buy the whole Sunday School theory in the song's accepted history. "I'm willing to believe that at Thanksgiving a young man's fancy turns to snow," he writes. "But no Massachusetts Sunday School is going to teach its charges a song whose lyrical preoccupations are racing, gambling and courting." He adds: "It seems easier to take James Pierpont at his word. He wrote 'Jingle Bells' not as a Sunday School song but as a 'sleighing song.'"
In the 1965 TV special A Charlie Brown Christmas
, Lucy asks Schroeder to play this song on piano, but isn't happy with his classical rendition
. She's not satisfied until he plays the bare-bones melody with one finger ("That's It!").
This is a conundrum many musicians face when performing Christmas favorites - listeners are used to hearing them a certain way, so improvisations can be tricky.