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Listen: The original “Jingle Bells” was a little bit sad and a little bit racy

Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

Every December, TV and radio become an aural hellscape, characterized by inescapable and obnoxiously tinny renditions of classic holiday music. If you want to give your eardrums a break but would still enjoy some festive winter tunes, this cover of the original 1857 “Jingle Bells” is a solid choice.

When James Lord Pierpont wrote "The One Horse Open Sleigh" in 1857, the song was subtly different from the “Jingle Bells” we know today. The difference in the lyrics is pretty minor. Pierpont originally had “oh what sport” and “oh what joy” instead of “oh what fun,” and “o’er the hills” instead of “o’er the fields.” The kid-friendly interjections of “sleigh — hey!” and “laughing all the way — ha ha ha!” came much later, after the song had been popularized by the advent of the phonograph and made ubiquitous by the version Bing Crosby recorded with the Andrews Sisters.

The biggest change between the 1857 version and the contemporary version lies in the chorus. Pierpont’s original melody is statelier and more classical than the exuberant modern version; it features a slightly melancholy tone that belies the ostensible joy of the lyrics.

This cover also includes the song’s last verses, which are usually left out of modern recordings. If you listen closely, you’ll see how “Jingle Bells” earned its now-confusing reputation as a slightly racy song in the 19th century. The lyrics tell the story of a young couple going out in a shockingly unchaperoned sleigh ride before the sleigh overturns, and in its final verse, the song advises young men who want to pick up pretty girls to get themselves a really fast sleigh. Chicks dig fast cars, apparently.

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