Monday, January 19, 2009

Dashing Through the Snow

While preparing program notes for a concert with a New England Christmas theme, I had a chance to learn more about the genesis of the popular winter song “Jingle Bells.” Of course, it was not intended as a “Christmas song” at all, but rather a “sleighing song,” which was a popular genre at the time. “Jingle Bells” did not become wildly popular until the later 19th century, when it gained its exclusive association with the holiday season. (It’s certainly not a carol, and of course, it has nothing to do with Christmas per se.) With its imagery of the one-horse open sleigh “dashing through the snow,” the jingling harness bells, and the unspoken but likely promise of a roaring fire at home, perhaps some steaming chocolate or hot cider, and a comely companion, we continue to love “Jingle Bells” as a reminder of our “old-fashioned” New England Christmas and of the love and good cheer that come to us at this season.

Preparing this program note brought back a wonderful childhood memory of “dashing through the snow” in our own “one-horse open sleigh.” I grew up on a large farm (90 acres) in a rural town in northeastern Massachusetts. We always had several horses, and enjoyed taking them out in harness. In summer, we sometimes went out in an old doctor’s buggy; this felt so stylish, with its high wheels and folding leather top. In winter, when the roads were snowy, we sometimes went out in an old pung, a one-horse sleigh or sledge, essentially a long box on runners, with a bench for the driver and an open area behind. Pungs were used to carry wood, feed, and other loads, as well as people. Sometimes extra benches could be placed in the back, as in this picture of a pung that is very much like the one we had:
When we’d had a heavy snow, and if the weather stayed cold enough to keep the hard-packed snow crisp on our country road, we’d go out in our “one-horse open sleigh.” Our old horse Betty loved to go out in the pung or buggy. She was a piebald horse with an intelligent eye (yes, only one eye, but what look she could give if she were angry or disappointed in you!) We’d pile plenty of hay in the back of the pung, into which we could snuggle, harness Betty, hitch up the pung, and off we’d go.
What an exhilaration! If you’ve never had a sleigh ride on a quiet country road, on a sparkling blue and white winter day, you can only imagine the sights and sounds unique to this experience. I can still hear the sleigh runners squeaking over the snow, the steady breathing of the horse, our laughter, and of course, the sleigh bells, big brass bells nearly two inches in diameter, affixed at intervals to strips of old leather six feet long – oh, what a happy sound they made! I can recall the cold on my face, my red tingling cheeks, the scratchy wool mittens made by my grandmother, and the sway of the sleigh, in tempo with the horse’s strides. I can still see the gathering dusk, those clear, clear skies that one sees only in winter, and the sharply-edged traceries of trees, black against a Maxfield Parrish sky.
I remember wondering — Did Betty mind pulling us all along? But when I watched her, I saw her ears pricked forward, her tail arched (no bobbed tails for us!) and occasionally waved with what must have been joy, and her prancing steps as she trotted along. Clearly, she enjoyed the outing as much as we did.
When we returned home, Betty rejoined her stablemates, the pung was returned to its spot in the corner of the barn, and we tumbled into the kitchen, dazzled by the light and warmth. Boots, coats, hats, mittens, were heaped on the floor by the old cast iron kerosene stove in the back hall that led from kitchen to barn. My mother would have the hot chocolate ready! And oh, the crowning glory: marshmallows on the hot chocolate!

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