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‘Jingle Bells’ Origin Fuels Holiday Controversy

Seccomb House, which later became the Simpson Tavern, Medford. Illustration by Nestor Redondo, 1992. (Courtesy of the Medford Historical Society)

Seccomb House, which later became the Simpson Tavern, Medford. Illustration by Nestor Redondo, 1992. (Courtesy of the Medford Historical Society)

BOSTON — There’s not much that evokes the holidays more than the song “Jingle Bells,” with its catchy tune and classic imagery of a sleigh gliding through a wintry landscape.

So where did this quintessential holiday song come from?

As it turns out, “Jingle Bells” is the source of a long-simmering controversy that involves two U.S. cities and a man named James Lord Pierpont. One of those cities is Massachusetts’ own Medford.

James Pierpont was born in Boston in 1822 and was the son of the well-known writer and pastor John Pierpont. He is just one of a handful of famous people connected to Medford.

Photo of Simpson Tavern, Medford, circa 1884. According to the City of Medford, this is where James Pierpont first performed "Jingle Bells" in 1850. (Courtesy of the Medford Historical Society)

Photo of Simpson Tavern, Medford, circa 1884. According to the City of Medford, this is where James Pierpont first performed "Jingle Bells" in 1850. (Courtesy of the Medford Historical Society)

“So we’ve got Fannie Farmer of the famous Fannie Farmer cookbook. We’ve got Lydia Maria Child, who was an abolitionist. We’ve got Mayor Michael Bloomberg, mayor of New York,” Kyna Hamill, co-president of the Medford Historical Society, explained.

And then there is James Pierpont. By some accounts Pierpont was a rebellious, musically minded wanderer who enjoyed the spotlight. Others were not so kind in their descriptions. In a 1994 article in the Medford Citizen he is described by unnamed local historians as a “complete loser.”

Still, among the Medford faithful, Pierpont is a much-loved native son. And why? The answer is on a plaque at 19 High St. that reads:

“Jingle Bells” composed here. On this site stood the Simpson Tavern where in 1850 James Pierpont wrote the song “Jingle Bells” in the presence of Mrs. Otis Waterman, who later verified the song was written here.

An official plaque, a precise location, a corroborating witness. That sounds like an air-tight claim to history.

But here is where things get sticky.

A few years after apparently giving life to “Jingle Bells” at Medford’s Simpson Tavern, Pierpont moved to Savannah, Ga., where he lived until his death in 1893. It was while in Savannah that Pierpont officially published the song under the title “One Horse Open Sleigh,” which was later changed to “Jingle Bells.”

That fact, of course, stands in the way of Medford’s exclusive claim to the song.

Sleigh races on Salem Street in Medford, thought to have inspired Pierpont's "Jingle Bells." Circa 1883. (Courtesy of the Medford Historical Society)

Sleigh races on Salem Street in Medford, thought to have inspired Pierpont's "Jingle Bells." Circa 1883. (Courtesy of the Medford Historical Society)

Hamill pulls a manila folder from her “Pierpont file” at the Medford Historical Society. The folder is labeled “Savannah-Generated James Pierpont Information–BEWARE.”

“So this is the anti-Medford Pierpont file. But our claim is of course that the landscape is, that the authenticity is that it’s in the landscape of Medford,” Hamill explained. “My answer to that is show me the body. If you’ve got the body, I’ll let you make that claim.”

Savannah native Hugh Golson is a retired high school teacher-turned-local historian. He claims that because Pierpont published “Jingle Bells” from Savannah, the song belongs firmly in Savannah’s history books.

“At the end of the day, we’ve got his mortal remains in our cemetery here,” Golson said. “So we’ve got the claim of his DNA in the soil. And he might have had some ditty going in his head, but he never cleaned it up, got it in suitable form to mail in to the publishers until 1857.”

There, in Savannah, you can also find a similar plaque claiming the song’s origins.

So, who comes out on top? Well, no one really. There’s no holiday throwdown. No jingle playoff. No victory lap in the horse-drawn sleigh.

Just one song and two cities determined to stick to their, well, bells.

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  • Nospam

    This controversy is totally unnecessar and takes away from the true purpose of Christmas-consumerism.

  • Emilyzola

    A Bowditch reporting on a Pierpont! That is some serious Bostonian shiz up in this piece.

  • Susanbowditch

    Just like your great X 4: wrote it in Salem; published in Newburyport!

  • David

    I seriously doubt that Pierpont wrote the song based on his experiences in Savannah, Ga. Obviously, it was influenced by his life in Medford. That alone should make it clear who has the bragging rights.

  • Anonymous

    I find this whole dispute amusing because nothing anyone says will ever change the claims made by both sides. Pierpont clearly wrote Jingle Bells while here in Medford (based on what he saw here), but published it later and lived most of his life (and eventually died) in Savannah. It’s reallly tough to “dash through the snow” in Savannah, where they average less than an inch of snow a year. But Pierpont lived there for decades and is buried there, so shared he is. 
     
    Every article I have every seen pits Medford against Savannah, when they both have decent claims and neither is ever going to be proven wrong. The two cities will continue to share Jingle Bells for all eternity. My only hope is that someday, someone opens a Jingle Bells Tavern in Medford, so that we can have more than a plaque here. 

  • Rev. Hank

    As the minister of the Unitarian Universalist church where Rev. Pierpont served, and where Childs and Farmer grew up, I say Savannah can have him. He was a man who abandoned his family twice and embraced the Confederacy because he didn’t like his father.

    No thanks, let they have him and let’s not hear About him any more… this Christmas.

  • Donsspa

    Why does anyone think that this is a Christmas song?  Look at the words.

  • mary

    I read somewhere that while he was living in Savannah, there was a very unusual snowing there and it reminded him of the days in Medford and the sleigh races  And that’s what prompted him to write the song. He was feeling a bit nostalgic.

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