Sunday, December 23, 2012

Jingle Bells

Dashing down the beach
'Cause the sand's hot underfoot
Must get to the sea
Without stepping on jellyfish.

I just made that up...but it's a more accurate picture of my childhood than the words to "Jingle Bells." :-) Living in the tropics, the sun would beat down on the beach, heating up the sand, which was not the most comfortable feeling ever for bare feet. When we visited Thailand in 1990, we also had the added benefit of avoiding the blobs of goo on the beach that were dead jellyfish, washed up on the sand. They can still sting even after they're dead. The Philippines has amazing shells on their beaches, and I loved collecting them. I also bought some polished ones in the souvenir shops.

Anyway, I'm guessing that isn't a typical way of starting a blog about a song that is all about an adventure in the snow. Some people have fond memories of playing in the snow when they were little. So do I, but most of my childhood was spent in countries that don't get snow. (The closest we got, I'm told, was one year when it got so cold in Hong Kong that there was frost on one of the mountain peaks. People came from all around to see the "snow.")

On the rare occasions when we were in the US, I loved the snow and everything about it. Well, almost everything. Since my legs were short at the time, snowshoeing was a bit of a chore, but aside from that... We built snowmen, made snow angels, and more. I don't remember ever riding in a sleigh, though. I have always loved snow, and still do to this day (although I have a healthy respect for driving in it). I think it was especially fun because it was so rare for me, and was thus a special treat. Not only because we lived in the Philippines, but because when we did come back to the US, we were in western Washington. This area doesn't get a whole lot of snow, except in the mountains, so when it does snow in the lowlands, the kids rejoice and the news media freaks out.

James Lord Pierpont (no relation to J. Pierrepont Finch), who wrote Jingle Bells in 1857, told the story of a (partially) delightful romp through the snow in a one horse open sleigh. He originally entitled his song "One Horse Open Sleigh," and he may have written it for Thanksgiving. (There are several conflicting reports regarding its origin, some of which are explained here.)

The first verse is by far the most well known:

Dashing through the snow
In a one horse open sleigh
O'er the fields we go
Laughing all the way (Ha ha ha!)
Bells on bobtail ring
Making spirits bright
What fun it is to ride and sing
A sleighing song tonight!

When I was little, I used to think that one line said, "Making spirits ride." That seems somewhat ghostly. Anyway, this sounds like a jolly old time. Apparently, a bobtail is a tail that is cut short, according to It must mean that the horse pulling the sleigh had a cut tail. I wonder what the ASPCA and PETA think of this song?

The second verse reminisces about the singer taking a sleighride with Miss Fanny Bright. The horse was lean and unfortunate, and they crashed into a snowbank and "got upsot" (which, according to Wikipedia, used to be a past participle of "upset," and means that the sleigh flipped). The author of this page did some research on who Miss Fanny Bright was. They found some Fanny (and Frances) Brights in old censuses, but didn't come up with a definitive answer. It's also possible that Pierpont made up the name.

The third verse gets worse. The singer now recalls going out in the snow and falling on his back. He was lying there helpless, when someone rode by in a one horse open sleigh, saw him, laughed, and continued past without helping. How rude!

The fourth and last verse gives advice on racing in a one horse open sleigh. You are supposed to do it while you're young, and take a girl along with you. "Get a bobtailed bay, two forty as his speed." The short tail must help the horse to go faster. A bay is a kind of horse. According to Wikipedia, "two forty" means that the horse needs to cover a mile in two minutes and 40 seconds (22.5 mph or 36.2 kph). If you do this, "crack! you'll take the lead." However, I'm not sure how trustworthy a guy is who just told us that he capsized a sleigh by crashing into a snowbank, and then went on to explain how he fell on his back and couldn't get up. Is he really in a place to give advice?

Apparently, the word "jingle" in the chorus is meant to be a command. Jingle bells aren't the kind of bells, but rather a command to the bells to jingle. In that case, maybe it should be called "Jingle, Bells!"

My favorite story related to Jingle Bells comes from here. Apparently, it was the first song to be played in space. In 1965, shortly before Christmas, and just before re-entering earth's atmosphere, Gemini 6 astronaut Thomas Stafford radioed into the Houston Mission Control with the news that "We have an object, looks like a satellite going from north to south, probably in polar orbit... Looks like he might be going to re-enter soon... You just might let me pick up that thing... I see a command module and eight smaller modules in front. The pilot of the command module is wearing a red suit."

I'll pause to let that sink in.

The message was followed by the sound of "Jingle Bells" played on the harmonica and sleigh bells, presumably played by who was wearing a red suit (although it may or may not have actually been played by fellow mischievous astronaut Walter Schirra).

Mr. Elliot in Mission Control responded with, "You're too much."

Gotta love astronauts with a sense of humor.

My favorite arrangement (with alternate lyrics and a few surprises):

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