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 December, 2006


 Exploring the literal meaning of Christmas songs

What is a One Horse Open Sleigh, Anyway?

By Al Owens
Back in 1857, some guy named James Pierpont wrote a Thanksgiving song titled “One Horse Open Sleigh”. It became so popular with its vivid winter imagery that its title was changed to “Jingle Bells”, and it eventually became a Christmastime staple.

In fact, Jingle Bells was so popular by 1965 that the crew of Gemini 6 made it the very first song ever broadcast from space.

But think about it. How many people do you know who’ve ever ridden a one horse open sleigh? I don’t think I’ve even seen one. But that doesn’t really matter. Christmas music is about the feeling it’s supposed to give you. And that’s good enough for me.

Especially since we’re only familiar with the first chorus and verse of Jingle Bells, but we hardly ever hear the remaining three. It would be kind of hard maintaining the Christmas spirit with lyrics like these: “A day or two ago, the story I must tell, I went out on the snow
and on my back I fell”. I never knew the complete version of Jingle Bells had anything to do with falling on ones back. Did you?

In 1957, exactly a hundred years after Jingle Bells was first performed, Bobby Helms wrote Jingle Bell Rock. A song with the words jingle or jingling sung 19 times. Bobby Helms must have loved that word.

While Jingle Bells was the first song ever sent from space, “I’ll be Home for Christmas”, was the first song ever broadcast into space. The flight crew of Gemini 7 was serenaded with the original Bing Crosby tune back in 1965. I’ll be Home For Christmas is an exercise in simplicity. It’s just two short verses. And it’s another one of those immediately recognizable Christmas tunes that never seem to get old when you hear it.

The Christmas Song is another. It was first sung by Mel Torme in 1946. Although I’ve always thought an image of Jack Frost nipping at my nose, isn’t a particularly appealing one.

Then there’s the “Twelve Days of Christmas”! Every year somebody (who’s obviously a little bored) calculates the cost of the 364 items mentioned in this song based on the current inflation statistics. Personally, I don’t know anybody who’d be happy to get 184 birds during the holidays. And I’m a little curious about a guy (around the ninth day of Christmas) who’d receive 9 girls a dancing. Something tells me in 2006, that kind of thing might spark a protest. Maybe they should change that verse. Maybe I’m taking some of this stuff a little too literally.

Let’s take a close look at the 1951 tune, “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas”. That title always puzzled me. If something is truly beginning to resemble something, I don’t really think it can look a LOT like it. It’s just the beginning of it. Consequently, if something IS a lot of something, it’s already way past the beginning of it. I think the appropriate title for that song should have been, “It’s Beginning to Look a LITTLE Like Christmas”, shouldn’t it?

Then there’s that one that has always perplexed me - “White Christmas”. Can you remember the Christmas of 2002? It snowed across Southwestern Pennsylvania most of Christmas Eve that year. That snow may have produced a white Christmas, but it also produced a day when travel was mighty difficult. Some people could hardly get out of their houses, let alone visit their friends and neighbors. It certainly was a white Christmas, but I don’t remember anybody who was really happy about it. It became a mess.

In fact, according to The National Climatic Data Center (or somebody there who’s also bored around the holidays) the likelihood that I would have experienced a white Christmas while I lived in Phoenix was 0%. That’s probably why when I lived there, I thought dreaming of a white Christmas would have been rather silly.

The chance people living in Philadelphia would experience a Christmas morning with an inch of snow on the ground is only about 10%. While, for some strange reason, Pittsburgh’s chances (and I suspect Uniontown’s) of having an inch or more of snow on Christmas morning is 33%.

But then again, who truly wants that anyway?