A Christmas sleigh ready for a loving touch
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    Auction Finds

    A real ‘Jingle Bells’ one-horse open sleigh

    The auction-house website called it a “one-horse open sleigh,” offering a photo of a familiar wintertime vehicle that made a simple song into a national treasure.

    “Dashing through the snow
    In a one-horse open sleigh
    Over 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.”

    I didn’t grow up in a place where it snowed in the wintertime nor in an era when one-horse open sleighs were common. So when I sang the song, I could only replay the image of sleighs I’d seen on paper.

    one horse open sleigh

    A one-horse open sleigh at auction.

    I knew that I’d hunt for the sleigh when I arrived at the auction house, and I found it on an outside deck clogged with furniture. It was in the second row near the aisle where its concrete gray appearance stood out among the mahogany and other shades of wooden furniture.

    The sleigh’s color had departed years ago. Its stuffed and tufted seat and  back were worn, but not torn or tattered, just dusty. The metal blades and wooden supports were still intact.

    At one time, this vehicle was one of those one-horse open sleighs in the beloved Christmas tune, which was written in 1857 by James Lord Pierpont with the title “The One Horse Open Sleigh.” There is some dispute about where he wrote it – either in his hometown of Medford, MA, or for a Sunday school class at a Savannah, GA, church where he was an organist.

    one horse open sleigh

    A view from the back of the one-horse open sleigh.

    Medford has a marker staking its claim, contending that Pierpont wrote the song at a local tavern in 1850 in tribute to the town’s annual one-horse open-sleigh races. The Savannah church has a marker that says he was in Georgia in the 1850s. The song was published in Boston in 1857 and reissued two years later with the title “Jingle Bells.” Pierpont’s lyrics were slightly different from what we sing today.

    Whether Pierpont wrote it while actually living in New England or nostalgically recalling his childhood while living in Georgia, it was created at a time when horse-drawn sleighs were common, especially for horse races. The sleigh in the little ditty was a two-seater called a cutter, just as the one at auction.

    one horse open sleigh

    The stuffed seat of the one-horse open sleigh.

    The bells in the song may refer to those attached to the harness worn by horses pulling sleighs or carriages. Sleighs move silently, so it was very important to signal to those in hearing that a sleigh was approaching and to stand back (or be run over).

    Pierpont was born in Medford in 1822, the son of a Unitarian minister and poet named John Pierpont who opposed slavery. His father’s anti-slavery poems were published in abolitionist newspapers. His brother also became an abolitionist, but Pierpont did not. He was living in the South when the Civil War broke out, and he sided with and volunteered for the Confederacy, and wrote songs in support of it. He was the uncle of the wealthy 19th-century financier and banker J. Pierpont Morgan.

    “Jingle Bells” didn’t catch on until a newspaper wrote a story about it in 1864, and even more so after recordings of it were made to be heard on phonographs and then radio. Ella Fitzgerald (in 1960), and Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters (in 1943) were inspired to put their own spin on it.

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