Bells have long been used to herald news of significance – signaling warnings, proclaiming glad tidings and calling people to gather for worship services or public meetings. Tracing their use back to earlier times, pagan cultures often used them as part of their celebrations to ward off evil spirits. As time passed, bells have found their way into celebrations for Christmas and songs of the season.
One traditional favorite is Jingle Bells, written by Lord Pierpont in 1850, copyrighted in 1857. Though originally inspired by the Salem sleigh races,* Pierpont later introduced it as a Thanksgiving song to a Georgia congregation where he served as organist. The bright melody and cheerful lyrics brought immediate popularity, and it carried over and became a standard Christmas tune.
As a quick aside, if you ever wondered what “bells on bobtail ring” were all about, they are referencing the sleigh bells that adorned the one horse whose tail had been “bobbed” or shortened to avoid becoming tangled in the reigns. People traveling on foot would not hear a sleigh traveling across the snow, especially at night, and the bells would announce the sleigh’s approach.
Although Christmas is traditionally connected with winter – in our northern climates that equates to snow – and also a heightened sense of fun and laughing, you don’t see much else in Jingle Bells that brings real Christmas meaning to the song. You could think of it as just entertaining, and that is ok. But in another sense, it offers a metaphor of hope, and perhaps that’s why it has gained seasonal popularity.
Most people enjoy watching the snow fall and relish the pristine beauty that covers the mundane and drab winter countryside. Though today thoughts move more to the interruption of life and the work involved to eradicate it. The open sleigh in our song offers an opportunity to travel across its surface and enjoy, rather than curse, the gift. Perhaps it is good to be reminded that the snow covers even the ugliest of surfaces and transforms them into things of beauty, and isn’t that why Jesus came at Christmas?
*Check out the full lyrics using the link and you’ll understand the connection to sleigh races.