November 25, 2019

Was Jingle Bells Written for Thanksgiving?

Most people are familiar with the song "Over the River and Through the Wood." It's associated with Thanksgiving and the lyrics go like this:
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.
There are more verses but you get the idea. I always associate this song with the 1973 TV special "A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving" since the kids sing it at the end of the show but the song actually dates back back to 1844. It was originally a poem composed by the Massachusetts author Lydia Marie Child. Child was born in Medford and her grandfather's house still stands in that city. (These days most people sing "to grandmother's house" rather than "grandfather's house.")

Currier and Ives, Home to Thanksgiving

The song is about riding a sleigh to Thanksgiving dinner (obviously). Although snow really isn't that common in Massachusetts in November sleigh rides (and snow in general) used to be major themes for Thanksgiving.

For example "Jingle Bells," another sleigh ride song, was also written for Thanksgiving. We now associate it with Christmas but that wasn't always the case. Interestingly, "Jingle Bells" was also written in Medford - James Pierpont supposedly wrote it at that town's Simpson Tavern in 1850. I guess Medford was the place to be for songwriters in the 19th century. (Thank you Snopes for the background on "Jingle Bells.") 

Snowy Thanksgiving were also common themes in the visual arts. For example one of Currier and Ives most popular prints was titled "Home to Thanksgiving," which shows guests arriving at a wintry New England farm.

So what's up with all this snowy Thanksgiving imagery? It doesn't snow that often in November in southern New England. Well, there are two answers. First, the climate was probably colder in the 19th century. The so-called Little Ice Age was just winding down when Child and Pierpont wrote their ditties but thing were still colder than they are today. Medford probably saw more November snow than it does now. 

There's also a cultural reason for the snow imagery. As I've mentioned in other posts, people in New England did not really celebrate Christmas widely until the 19th century. The Puritans who founded New England didn't celebrate the holiday because they didn't think there was a Biblical basis for it, and that tradition stuck in New England for many years. They did celebrate Thanksgiving though. Modern Christmas celebrations often feature snowy imagery in anticipation of winter, but Thanksgiving filled this role for our New England ancestors. 

Thanksgiving was the holiday that kicked off winter, not Christmas. Also Thanksgiving was not always celebrated in November. The date was announced by the local government and in some years Thanksgiving was celebrated in December. Historian James Baker notes that Thanksgiving could be celebrated as late as December 22. So sometimes Thanksgiving really was the start of winter. 

I got a lot of this information from James Bakers book Thanksgiving: The Biography of An American Holiday (2009). While explaining the snowy Thanksgiving imagery Baker also illuminated something about how we currently envision the holiday. Modern Thanksgiving imagery tends to focus on the harvest and on vibrant fall foliage but that's also a cultural creation. At least here in New England the harvest is over by late November and most of the trees have already lost their leaves. The leaves that do remain are brown and brittle. The natural world isn't looking very festive right now, which is probably why we brighten up Thanksgiving with thoughts of snowy sleigh rides or overflowing cornucopias. Whether Puritan or post-modernist we all need some holiday magic to get through the gloomy time of year. 

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