We’re taking a holiday sidetrack through 1857 today — from baseball to one of the most ubiquitous Christmas Carols.
On Christmas Day when I was a kid, my dad would take all the wrapped gifts marked for him and line them up in front of his chair. He would then randomly pick one and declare that it was the best of all. And, that was the gift he would open last. And, by last, I mean later in the day. Much later. Sometimes he would save that last gift until well into the evening when mom was already thinking about taking down the tree. (Mom usually had the Christmas tree stripped and down by lunchtime on the 26th.)
Throughout Christmas Day, my dad would ask if I had any more packages to open, and when I would sadly answer “no,” he would pick up his gift and say, “I still have one to open and it’s the best.”
The Baseball Bloggess grabbing for just one more gift.
So, stick with me because the best story I will tell you today will be the one I tell last.
If you want to snoop through all the stories of baseball – or “base ball” or “base-ball” – in newspapers in 1857, it won’t take long. A couple dozen mentions are all you will find.
When this peculiar, relatively new game appears in Bloomington, Indiana in June 1857, the local paper reports:
“It is a lively and exciting game, with lots of exercise and fun in it. We hope it will speedily become popular here.”
It was, they said, a game for young men. And, with life expectancy hovering around 38 back then, pretty much everything was for young men. (Sorry, ladies, no baseball for you.)
1857 was also a landmark year in baseball’s evolution. In February, a “Base Ball Convention” was held in New York, where an assortment of leaders from various New York base ball leagues met to agree on, and standardize, some of the rules of the game.
It is at this convention in 1857 that the leagues agreed on things like this:
- A game would be nine innings. (Games tied after nine would continue.)
- A caught fly ball would be an out. But, if the ball bounced before being caught, the play would be fair.
- The bat must be round.
- There must be four – and only four – bases, including home, and each base must be spaced 90 feet from the next.
- A base runner cannot run outside the base paths.
- A team is allowed three outs in its half of the inning.
And, look, here we are 162 years later, and we’re still playing by pretty much the same rules. (You can read the entire 1857 final document here.)
Sure, some things have changed. But, nine innings? Some things are fine just the way they were in 1857.
Which brings me to Christmas.
In Baltimore, on Christmas Day 1857, the Holliday Street Theatre presented their “Christmas Gala!” with an evening performance, and “Afternoon Entertainment for Ladies and Children.”
“the beautiful Drama of The Hunchback of Notre Dame;
The Maniac Mother!”
There was also a performance at The Baltimore Museum – “expressly for the children” – of something called Laugh and Grow Fat!
If The Maniac Mother! wasn’t your idea of entertainment, just 25 cents would get you into Sanderson’s Gigantic Representation of the Late Russian War at the Maryland Institute, including a display of the war on 50,000 feet of canvas.
“Once Seen, Never To Be Forgotten!”
Well, you could swing by the Canton Hotel where they’ll be shooting 100 turkeys for Christmas.
And, yes, people gave Christmas gifts back in 1857. (Things other than 100 dead turkeys.)
“Suitable Holiday Presents,” including beaver and velvet cloaks, were still available at Hamilton’s and Co. on Christmas morning.
Really, to read the ads – “suitable” about sums up Christmas presents in 1857. Clothes or gloves. If you were lucky, maybe some raisins. Or if you were a really, really lucky kid, a hobby horse “on which the boy may propel himself with pleasure.” (Sorry, girls, no hobby horse for you.)
And, there were Christmas carols back then, too.
(Like the gift my dad saved until last, here’s the part I’ve been saving for you.)
In 1857, James Pierpont published a song he called The One Horse Open Sleigh, the song we know today as Jingle Bells.
James Lord Pierpont
Pierpont wrote plenty of less-famous songs. Songs like The Returned Californian. The Gold Rush had lured the Massachusetts native to abandon his wife and children and head to California a few years earlier. Things clearly didn’t go well:
Oh, I’m going far away from my Creditors just now,
I ain’t the tin to pay ’em and they’re kicking up a row;
I ain’t one of those lucky ones that works for ‘Uncle Sam,’
There’s no chance for speculation and the mines ain’t worth a damn.
There’s my tailor vowing vengeance and he swears he’ll give me Fitts,
And Sheriff’s running after me with pockets full of writs;
And which ever way I turn, I am sure to meet a dun,
So I guess the best thing I can do, is just to cut and run.
From California, Pierpont ended up in Georgia and that’s where he is when he publishes The One Horse Open Sleigh in 1857. (Massachusetts and Georgia have been tussling for more than a century about who gets credit for the song.)
(Pierpont later wrote Civil War-era songs for the Confederacy, including Our Battle Flag, Strike for the South, and We Conquer or Die.)
But, back to Jingle Bells. Because the song we sing today is not the song he wrote.
His original lyrics are a little different, racy, even. (“Go it while you’re young” is clearly 1857-style soft porn.)
But, it’s not that.
It’s the melody.
Somewhere along the way some know-it-all decided to tweak the chorus’ melody. Some people think it was to make it easier to sing. But, that tweak turned the song into the dull and insipid version we all have heard about a billion too many times.
And, that’s a shame.
Because, like nine-inning baseball games, some things should stay the way 1857 made them.
And, Jingle Bells is one of them.
Here it is. The better Jingle Bells. The real Jingle Bells.
Don’t ever sing it to me the wrong way again.