Exploring the Artifacts: Jingle Bells

Jingle bells on a horses harness in the Museum's 2020 Christmas display.

Jingle bells on a horses harness in the Museum's 2020 Christmas display.

Bells have been a part of Christmas traditions for hundreds of years. Many churches had bells, which they rang to announce the start of Christmas Eve services.

When caroling became popular in the 1800s, people often took small hand bells with them, to play the tune of the carol.

The song One Horse Open Sleigh was published in the United States in 1857. The chorus, Jingle Bells, may have been written between 1850-1875. This version of had different words than we sing today. The song was originally  a Thanksgiving song –remember, the USA has Thanksgiving in November– but was sung so much at Christmas time it became known as a Christmas song.

“Jingle bells” refers to bells put on horses harnesses. The bells helped to avoid collisions, as they helped people driving horse-drawn sleighs to be able to hear each other approaching. Otherwise, the sound of a sleigh in the snow is very quiet.

The rhythm of the song mimics what bells on a trotting horse would sound like.