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Jingle Bells – Medford’s Christmas Carol

I thought this would be a simple Christmas post about Jingle Bells and its Medford origins.  Turns out it’s a much more interesting story than I knew.

Jingle Bells was written by James Pierpont and describes the sleigh races held on Pleasant Street between Medford Square and Malden. Peirpont was born in Boston in 1822, son of the Reverend John Pierpont, a Unitarian minister, ardent abolitionist and noted poet.

Sleigh racing in the 1800s - theme of Jingle Bells

Sleigh racing in the 1800s - theme of Jingle Bells

Turns out Pierpont was, from an early age, a bit of wild man, called a “19th century scalawag” in a Dec. 21, 1997 Boston Globe article who “had a woman in every port”.  He ran away to sea aboard The Shark at the age of 14.  Back on the East Coast he married Millicent Cowee in the 1840s and with his wife and two children moved to Medford when his father became minister of the Unitarian Church in Medford in 1849.

James left the family behind and joined the Gold Rush in San Francisco shortly thereafter. Failing to find success he returned to Medford.

Back in Medford, Pierpont is said to have composed Jingle Bells while playing the piano at a Medford boarding house, the Seccomb House, by the intersection of High and Forest Streets.

In 1853, James’ brother John, Jr. accepted a position as minister of the Savannah, Georgia Unitarian Church.  Again leaving his wife and children with his parents, James moved to Savannah and became the organist and music director in his brother’s church.  In 1857 Jingle Bells, initially called “One Horse Open Sleigh”, was published, leading Savannah to attempt to lay claim to the song in recent years.

Back in Medford, Pierpont’s wife died of TB. The following year he married Eliza Purse of Savannah, whom descendants suggest he had been living with prior to his wife’s death and who gave birth to a child shortly after their marriage. Pierpont’s two children from his first marriage remained with their grandparents.

Jingle Bells

Jingle Bells

When the Civil War broke out Pierpont’s father, 76 at the time, volunteered to serve with the Union Army, eventually accepting a position with the Treasury Department instead.  For his 80th birthday celebration, Rev. Pierpont recieved tributes from fellow poets  Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, John Greenleaf Whittier, and Oliver Wendell Holmes.

The Savannah Unitarian Church was closed since its abolitionist leanings were not popular in the South. While James’ brother returned to the North, James, son and brother of abolitionists, enlisted with the Confederate Army serving two years and writing several Confederate battle songs.

A few other fun facts about the family – J. Pierpont Morgan, the Wall Street financier whose library became New York’s Pierpont Morgan Library, was the son of James’s sister Juliet. James’ daughter from his first marriage, Mary, married Theodore Barnum, a cousin of circus promoter P.T. Barnum.  One of his ancestors, for whom I imagine he’s named, James Pierpont was a founder of Yale and his daughter married theologian Jonathan Edwards. Yowza – it’s quite the family tree!

James Pierpont died in 1893 and is buried in Savannah with a Confederate marker at his grave.

But back to Jingle Bells

Turns out Jingle Bells is not the simple holiday ditty that we think it is.

The Boston Herald, in a Dec. 24, 2001 article described Jingle Bells as “pre-Civil War rock ‘n roll.  In its seldom heard original form, it’s about having a flashy vehicle, driving it too fast and using it to pick up girls.”

Not what you thought, huh?

Jingle Bells

Dashing through the snow in a one-horse open sleigh

Through the fields we go laughing all the way.

Bells on bob tail ring making spirits bright

What fun it is to ride and sing a sleighing song tonight.


Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way!

Oh, what fun it is to ride in a one-horse open sleigh, O

Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way!

Oh, what fun it is to ride in a one-horse open sleigh.

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,

He got into a drifted bank and there we got upsot.


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 at me as I there sprawling laid but quickly drove away.


Now the ground is white, go it while you’re young,

Take the girls along and sing this sleighing song.

Just bet a bob-tailed bay, two-forty as his speed.

Hitch him to an open sleigh and crack! You’ll take the lead.




Boston Globe, December 21, 1997. “A New Tune on ‘Jingle Bells’ Composer Medford’s Pierpont was 19th Century Scalawag.”

Boston Herald, December 24, 2001. “Jingle Bell Shock: Both Medford and Savannah, Ga. Stake Claims to ‘Racy’ Holiday Song.”

Cincinnati Post, December 23, 2003. “Birthplace of Jingle Bells Is Debated.”

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