Perhaps no sound signals the winter holiday season in America more than a spirited rendition of the song “Jingle Bells”:
This joyful wintertime tune—originally published in 1857 as “One Horse Open Sleigh” by James Pierport—captures a bygone America in which horses served a central role in everyday life. The song evokes in our imaginations what was once a common sight when snow turned the countryside white: horsemen changed out their wheeled sulkies for sleds, and horse-drawn sleighs ruled the roads.
For many, sleigh racing was a cold-weather pastime as beloved as sledding, skiing, or making snowmen.
It is unclear in the history books where Pierport was when he wrote “Jingle Bells”; Both Medford, MA and Savannah, GA lay claim to the honor. Regardless, his inspiration for the piece was undoubtedly the horse-drawn sleigh racing he encountered in his birth-state of Massachusetts. According to a community plaque posted by the Medford Historical Society, Pierport’s song “tells of the sleigh races held on Salem streets in the early 1800s.”
In the 19th century, harness racing was extremely popular in towns throughout New England. During the winter months sled racing took hold as a favorite recreational pursuit. Straight roads covered in packed snow made for excellent racing lanes, and horsemen hitched their finest trotters for organized and spontaneous races, much to the excitement of onlookers. Local newspapers from the 1800s and early 1900s included the latest sleigh racing reports, dutifully describing the race conditions, cataloguing the winners, and analyzing the breeding of the best horses. For many, sleigh racing was a cold-weather pastime as beloved as sledding, skiing, or making snowmen.
The jingling bells now forever remembered in Pierport’s catchy chorus describe the bells that lined leather harnesses or sleigh shafts of the time. It was custom—and in some cases local law—to drive with bells as a precautionary measure. Sled runners glided smoothly over the ground and snow muffled the sounds of horses’ hooves, making horse-drawn sleighs a nearly silent form of transportation. As such, clinking bells helped drivers avoid collisions at intersections and alerted passersby to a sled’s approach.
The sleigh described in “Jingle Bells” is known as a “cutter”—a two-person vehicle designed for a single horse in harness. Though virtually any horse or pony could be called upon to pull a sled, the best horses for sleigh racing were lean of body, bred not for the speed of their gallop but of their trot. A horse that could trot “two forty” like the bobtailed bay referenced in “Jingle Bells” could cover a mile in two minutes and 40 seconds—a speedy trot indeed! As the song alludes, it was not uncommon for the tails of trotters to be bobbed or docked to avoid entanglement in the tack.
This 1898 video of sleighs driving through central park is accompanied by the first recording of “Jingle Bells” from the same year.
For many years, “Jingle Bells” was regarded as not much more than a “sleigh song” typical of the time, a genre which was popular with youth. The song’s merry cadence parallels the balanced hoof-fall of a trotting horse. Sleigh-riders could sing in time with the beat of their horse’s hooves, and share a laugh over the youthful antics described in the lesser-known final verses of the song.
Though it took years after its debut for “Jingle Bells” to infiltrate mainstream culture, today it is one of the most widely recognized songs in existence. It boasts numerous appearances at the top of music charts and has been recorded by hundreds of artists over many decades. Pierport’s winter ditty was first conceptualized as a Christmas hit in the 1940s thanks to Bing Crosby and The Andrews Sisters’ celebrated recording. The song is now a holiday classic sung around the world.
As for sleigh racing, it waned in popularity with each passing year after the introduction of the automobile. Yet to this day, the delight of riding in a horse-drawn sleigh lifts the spirits of any lucky enough to sit behind the reins. For years to come, sleigh rides will remain an idyllic way to enjoy the wintry countryside, savor the brisk open air, and experience horsepower in its truest form.