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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Over The River To Grandfather’s House In Medford

Grandfather's and Grandmother's House In Medford

Site of Grandfather's and Grandmother's House In Medford

We all remember the holiday song “Over the river and through the woods to grandfather’s house we go…”  but did you know that grandfather and grandmother lived in Medford?

Lydia Maria Child wrote the poem, source of the beloved song, about memories of visiting her grandparents in their home by the Mystic River in Medford, Massachusetts.

First published in 1844 in Child’s Flowers for Children Vol. II, the poem was originally titled “A Boy’s Thanksgiving Day”. Truth be told I always thought of it as a Christmas song. No wonder – when you search for the lyrics you’ll find versions with Christmas substituted for Thanksgiving. And what’s with all that blowing snow in November?  I also always thought of it as grandmother’s house and many versions refer to “grandmother’s house”, rather than grandfather’s, in the opening lines.

Grandfather’s house that Lydia Maria Child visited was a small farmhouse near the Mystic River.  About 1839 the house was expanded and became a stately Greek Revival. The ell on the back of the house is the original farmhouse.  The house has been restored and is today owned by Tufts University.

Grandfather's House was the original farmhouse in the rear of the 1839 addition

Grandfather's House was the original farmhouse in the rear of the 1839 addition

Here are the verses of A Boy’s Thanksgiving Day aka Over the River and Through the Woods. There’s also a 12-verse version.

Over the river, and through the wood,
to Grandfather’s house we go;
the horse knows the way to carry the sleigh
through the white and drifted snow.

Over the river, and through the wood,
to Grandfather’s house away!
We would not stop for doll or top,
for ’tis Thanksgiving Day.

Over the river, and through the wood-
oh, how the wind does blow!
It stings the toes and bites the nose,
as over the ground we go.

Over the river, and through the wood
and straight through the barnyard gate.
We seem to go extremely slow-
it is so hard to wait!

Over the river, and through the wood-
when Grandmother sees us come,
She will say, “o, dear, the children are here,
bring a pie for every one.”

Over the river, and through the wood-
now Grandmothers cap I spy!
Hurrah for the fun! Is the pudding done?
Hurrah for the pumpkin pie!

The site remembered in “Over The River and Through the Woods to Grandfather’s House We Go…” is at  114 South Street, Medford, MA and is on the National Register of Historic Places.

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Amelia Earhart’s House In Medford

Did you know that Amelia Earhart lived in Medford Mass?  With the movie, “Amelia”, starring Hilary Swank as Earhart and Richard Gere as Earhart’s husband, opening this weekend I figured it was a good  time to check out the home where the famous aviatrix lived.

Amelia Earhart’s House In Medford

Amelia Earhart's Home In Medford Mass

Amelia Earhart's Home In Medford Mass

The Earhart women, Amelia, her sister Muriel, and their mother Amy, moved to Medford in 1924 following their mother’s divorce. They moved to this hip roofed shingled house at 76 Brooks Street in West Medford. 

As the monument in front of the Amelia Earhart home notes, Amelia lived here with her mother and sister for several years. She subsequently lived at Denison House, a settlement house in Boston where she worked as a social worker.  She married George Putnam, played by Richard Gere in the movie, on February 7, 1931.

Monument In Front Of The Earhart House On Brooks Street

Monument In Front Of The Earhart House On Brooks Street

Earhart was the first woman to fly across the Atlantic – first as a passenger in 1928 and then as a pilot in a solo flight in 1932. She was only the second person to fly solo across the Atlantic, five years after Charles Lindbergh’s flight.

Amelia’s mother died several months after her daughter’s disappearance in 1937 during her ill fated round-the-world flight.  Her sister, Muriel Morrissey, lived a long life in Medford where she was a public school teacher. Muriel died in Medford in 1998 at the age of 98.  George Putnam died in 1950 at the age of 62.

Here’s another local tie-in with a recent movie:  Julia Child’s House In Cambridge

Would you like to see inside Amelia Earhart’s house?  It’s just been listed for sale and you can click on the small photo below for more info and additional photographs.

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