Crashing Through the Snow: The Grim Sarcasm Behind 'Jingle Bells'

Thanks to technological progress, cars are much safer than one-horse open sleighs.


It's the holiday season, and Christmas carols are everywhere, including the ubiquitous "Jingle Bells," first published in 1857. Many take the refrain, "Oh what fun it is to ride in a one-horse open sleigh!" at face value. But an underappreciated aspect of the lyrics is that they are actually rather cynical about sleigh rides. Part of the song goes:

The horse was lean and lank 

Misfortune seemed his lot 

He got into a drifted bank 

And then we got upsot.

In the next verse, which is often skipped, the narrator relates being thrown out of the sleigh onto his back and getting laughed at by a romantic rival. His misfortune was relatively minor, but being thrown from a sleigh or carriage was not always a laughing matter.

During the time of horse-drawn vehicles, accidents frequently caused not only delays and inconveniences but also injuries and deaths. The British historian Paul Hair called the horse "one of man's most dangerous tools," arguing that "it is likely that per unit of travel the horse was more dangerous than the motor vehicle."

He quotes Britain's registrar general as noting in 1865 that "street accidents by horse carriages kill more people in a year than railways" and estimates a horse-related mortality rate of around 55 deaths annually per million people in 1874. In 2020, there were 1,516 road deaths in the United Kingdom. Divided by the current U.K. population of 67.2 million, that translates into a mortality rate from motor vehicle accidents of about 23 deaths annually per million people, making modern car rides more than twice as safe as Victorian horse carriage rides. And car deaths are becoming more rare almost everywhere.

One problem with relying on unruly, skittish horses for transportation was that the animals sometimes bolted or reared unexpectedly. A slightly faulty harness could also spell disaster. Even dismounting a horse or carriage was dangerous; horse kicks have an average force of 2,000 pounds per square inch and an average speed of 200 miles per hour. One famous study found that, in the 19 years between 1875 and 1894, at least 280 highly trained Prussian cavalrymen died from horse kicks.

No amount of wealth or power could shield someone from the inherent danger of a horseback or carriage ride. Servants and nobility alike succumbed to carriage accident injuries.  

The crown prince of France's July Monarchy, Ferdinand Philippe d'Orléans, died of a skull fracture from a horse carriage accident at the young age of 31 in 1842. In the United States, the French-born governor of Louisiana, Pierre Derbigny, died in office in 1829 when he was thrown from a moving horse-drawn carriage. A grandson of Thomas Jefferson died in a horse carriage accident in 1875. Future first lady Frances Cleveland's father died in a horse carriage accident that same year.  

A monument in New York City commemorates a debutante named Charlotte Canda, who was killed in a horse carriage accident in 1845. On her way back from her 17th birthday party, the horse bolted, and Charlotte was thrown out of the moving carriage.

In Australia, the English novelist Charles Dickens' daughter-in-law died in a similar accident in 1878. The ponies became spooked and ran wild, flinging her out of the carriage and causing a fatal head injury. She was just 29 years old and left behind two children who survived the accident, but were no doubt traumatized by witnessing their mother's death. In Germany, in 1900, Prince Albert of Saxony died at age 25 when an open carriage collided with his own, overturning it into a ditch.

Old newspapers reveal many episodes of startled horses running amok, wrecking the vehicles they were pulling and injuring riders. The horses themselves were often casualties. In fact, Victorian streetcar horses had an average life expectancy of barely two years.

If we look beyond horse-drawn carriage accidents to other equine-related injuries, the list of victims includes several kings. William of Orange, for example, died from illness exacerbated by a broken collarbone sustained when his horse tripped on a molehill in 1702. After having the bone set, he took a bumpy 12-mile carriage ride that jolted the bone out of place and necessitated re-setting it. That carriage ride must have been horrifically painful.

So rather than romanticizing horse-drawn transportation, the next time you hear the line, "Oh what fun it is to ride in a one-horse open sleigh!" remember that the lyric is somewhat sarcastic—and with good reason. And as you travel to see loved ones for the holidays, take a moment to appreciate the technological advances in transportation safety.

NEXT: George Will Loves To Argue About America

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  1. A somewhat loose cannon teacher in high school read us stories from a British history, possibly by Charles Dickens, but I have never found the book. One involved an English king campaigning in France who was too damned fat, and when you added armor, it was a touch chore for his horse. One day the horse stumbled in a gopher hole, the saddle punctured the king's gut, they carried him into a local cottage, he died, they dug a grave, but it turned out to be too small, they had to enlarge it, the whole process took so long that his body swelled up even larger, and eventually burst, either while they were trying to squeeze him out of the cottage or into the grave, I forget which.

    Or so I remember. He read us that because he hated dates and kings and such for history, and wanted us to remember instead that for several centuries, English kings came from a line of French kings after the Norman conquest ("1066 and all that") and had legitimate claims to France, The dates and the kingly names were immaterial. He was a great teacher.

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  2. I'm not sure falling off a horse is worse than the risk of a car accident. Mucking out horse stalls is a real pain, and the amount of crap horses dumped on the streets meant all kinds of problems--from diseases to insect infestations. Horses may be safer than motorcycles, but I prefer motorcycles because they're fun and still give me the flexibility to depend on myself for safety.

    One of the big drawbacks with horses was that you had to grow hay to feed them, and that took land and labor away from its most profitable use. That land and labor you used to grow and harvest hay for your horses could have been used to grow a cash crop or raise animals for sale instead. The original idea behind diesel tractors was that farmers could grow their own fuel, but buying fuel for tractors was more profitable than wasting land and labor growing something to turn into diesel (via vegetable oil).

    The downside was that now you were depending on other people for fuel. Grow your own hay for horses, and you don't need to worry about the politics of the Middle East or whether the progressives will destroy your access to fuel. We lose our autonomy when we make ourselves dependent on the stupidity of progressives and the government.

    If I had to rank them, I'd say progressive idiots are the least dependable, cars and tractors make us depend on those idiots for access to fuel, horses and hay are more dependable than that, and motorcycles may be the most dependable of all. It's really just an autonomy scale. The less you need to depend on progressives and the government, the freer and safer you are from their stupidity.

    Someone like Joe Manchin won't always be there to save us from the progressives. In some ways, we were safer back when we were falling off our horses. They were touting Build Back Better as the solution to inflation!

    1. Motorcycles are far more dangerous than either cars or horse drawn carriages or sleighs.

      1. I don't know about carriages or sleighs, but horseback riding is more dangerous than many people realize. On a per hour basis, way more likely to result in injury than motorcycling.

        When you fall off a horse you fall a long way. Lots of skull cracking and busted arms and ankles happen from that, it's just so not-common for people to ride horses anymore that nobody considers it. Superman in a wheelchair is an extreme example, but for sporting riding, like the jumpers and the barrel racers, it's extra risky.

        Here -- random google link talking about it

        But... yeah. I grew up in a horse town. My neighborhood had dirt sidewalks so you could ride your horse along the street. So I have some experience.

        One of my elementary school classmates got a concussion when her horse reared and she went of the back, another fell off and busted her arm, and one got kicked pretty good once and got his toe busted when his horse stepped on him another time. That's 10% of my class (I went to a small school, there were maybe 25-30 of us in my class) and only half of us had horses. Anecdotal, but we all knew it was dangerous. Though nobody thought twice about folks riding their horses. Hell, half the kids I grew up with eventually rode dirtbikes and then motorcycles, so I'm guessing I grew up in a way less risk averse culture than most.

        1. If you're a millennial riding an escalator could be fatal.

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        2. I’ve fallen off a horse before, and it can be done without calamitous effect. If we were dependent on horses, we’d likely have better horsemanship to compare to our familiarity with automobiles.

      2. A ride with a Kennedy is even more dangerous.

        1. Come away with me Lucille
          In my submerged Oldsmobile
          Down the road of life we fly,
          Automo-bubbling, you and I.
          We can go as far as we can drive
          but I'll be the only one alive
          In my merry Oldsmobile.

          1. Lucille? I thought her name was Mary Jo Kopechne?

            1. Kopechne is a lot harder to rhyme.

              Maybe Mary Jo and GTO ?

              1. Merry Jo Oldsmobile is the best I can do.

              2. Oh Mary Jo, where shall we go…
                In my under water Oldsmobile?

                (Better rhythm)

    2. "...One of the big drawbacks with horses was that you had to grow hay to feed them, and that took land and labor away from its most profitable use..."

      Besides which, they're big and dumb, which means they can be dangerous in surprising ways.

      1. Sorta like politicians?

    3. Amazing! You went from horses vs automobiles to yet another diatribe against progressives. You are a parody of yourself.

      1. That's not what he did, but don't let me stop you from lying.

        Also, how come you swear you're not a progressive, but always rush to white knight for them the second they're attacked? It's almost like you're lying about your political allegiances too.

        1. Mike is a retarded faggot.

          1. I imagine readers are supposed to politely not notice the continual homoeroticism in your almost-middle-school-caliber attempts at internet trolling? Not sure this is the place to be talking about your web search history so much.

            I wonder if you ever use your brain accidentally, and if that induces physical pain.

    4. What kind of fuel do you imagine that your motorcycles use?

      1. Very little.

    5. The thing with growing hay is that it takes very little effort. Basically just cutting it.

      If you had a small farm, then yeah, maybe you needed to grow something on that land. But more likely you had more land than you could work, and hay is a nice bonus

    6. Back in the day, there were plenty of men that depended on their horse to get them home safely when they were blind drunk. That became a much worse idea when motor cars began sharing the road, but until then ... I suspect that even with nothing on the road to scare your horse or run into it hard enough to kill even a horse, the death rate from drunk riding was still much, much higher than we'd consider acceptable today, and even the death rate from sober riding and carriage accidents was too high by today's standards.

      But remember, the death rate from _everything_ was much higher, so people accepted a higher risk of preventable deaths from accidents than today, as unimportant compared to the much higher rate of unpreventable deaths. For centuries, smallpox killed 10 to 30% of each generation; this gradually ended as vaccination spread in the 19th century, but there many other ways to die young. People lighted their houses with candles and oil lamps, heated with fireplaces or steam boilers, and frequently died in fires. Steam ships sank for many reasons, including boiler explosions from racing. Locomotives were apt to blow up, the tracks were apt to break, and train cars barely had any brakes before the 1880's. Dozens of types of fatal bacterial infections were well known to doctors (and often spread by your doctor!); most of them are no problem with a dose of antibiotics, but the first antibiotics (the sulfa drugs) were only invented in the 1920's. Slow death from tuberculosis became a cliche in 19th century novels, and it probably was that common in real life - and the first antibiotic that worked on it at all was only discovered after WWII.

    7. "In some ways, we were safer back when we were falling off our horses"

      Good reminder that the "progress" touted by "progressives" and American-style libertarians via science, reason and civilization is most of the time no kind of progress at all.

  3. Merry Christmas to you too! :-p

  4. This article compares horses with primary travel. Almost no one uses horses for primary travel

    For recreational purposes, horses are always a hazard, but they still have a sense of self preservation. Unlike ATV's or UTV's.

    I'd like to see a percentage comparison of horse related injuries with ATV uses. My area has a handful of deaths every year on recreational vehicles.

    1. Highsiding an ATV in the sand is one of my reoccurring nightmares.

    2. 3 wheeled ATVs were so dangerous they all have 4 wheels now.

      1. I had a Tri Moto 125. Definitely the sketchiest vehicle I've ever ridden. Counterintuitive controls compared to anything else.

    3. A one horsepower horse also has less power to weight versus an ATV or snowsled. The amish buggies don’t go fast.

      And as you said, a horse isn’t interested in doing “stupid.”

    4. The stats the author uses for horse safety are taken from times when horses were primary travel.

      1. So fucking retarded.

  5. Remember how the TV reality mini-series of about 20 years ago Frontier House nearly got a child killed in its opening minutes in a wagon accident?

    BTW, I'm convinced that if he'd actually been on the scene at the time depicted, the head of household that was judged least likely to survive the winter, and who cheated, would've wound up owning the Dakota Territory, with hookers and blackjack and a space program. He was already set up to make hooch. That guy was entrepreneurial!

    1. Great show!

    2. That was a social engineering experiment to program viewers.

  6. I think I'm more likely to break my neck falling from a horse than a motorcycle. The height and leg position give my body just enough time to rotate head down - snap. Unless I collided with something the motorcycle crash is more of a slide. Buying new leathers is always a pain.

    1. The thing with a motorcycle is, I don't need to depend on a horse for my safety. I'm a lot smarter than a horse. I can anticipate and avoid other people's mistakes on a motorcycle. If a horse gets scared and decides to do something stupid, there isn't much I can do about that. My understanding is that mules are smarter than horses. That stubbornness is about self-preservation. If a mule thinks you're an idiot, he won't do what you want. They put blinders on horses because they'll go anywhere you tell them. I'm smarter than a horse when I'm on a motorcycle, and I'm smarter than a mule, too. The only time I thought I would be in an accident was when someone was fleeing the scene of a crime. She could have run me over, and there wasn't much I could do, but that wasn't because I was on a motorcycle. It was because she was fleeing the scene of a crime.

      1. Everyone I know who owns a motorcycle has crashed it though.

        1. You really need to take maintenance seriously as well. I've known 2 people who crashed when thier engine seized.

        2. There are two types of motorcyclists: Those who have crashed and those who will. I've hit the deck twice. One was a deer strike and I broke both arms. Good times.

          1. There are lots of different kinds of motorcyclists. There are those under 24 years old, and those over--and there's a huge statistical gulf between those two when it comes to accidents. There are the kinds of motorcyclists who ride around inebriated, too. A lot of them are under 24, but a lot of them aren't.

            The two types of motorcyclists that really matter are those who blame other people for their problems, and those that tend to take responsibility for everything that might go wrong--regardless of whether the law, the insurance company, or society says it's their fault.

            I have far more faith in my ability to avoid accidents through heavy traffic at high speed in Southern California than I do avoiding an accident as a passenger the way most people drive--anywhere else in the country.

            And the point remains that the less we're forced to depend on other, incompetent people to make our choices for us, the better off we are--and the safer we are. I can make far better choices for myself than the government can for me on every topic I can think of. Freedom is about being rationally confident in your own abilities, and I am far safer when I'm making choices for myself than i am when other people are making choices for me--even when I'm on a motorcycle.

            Incidentally, guns can be dangerous, too, which doesn't mean responsible individuals put themselves or anyone else in danger when they carry them responsibly, and it would be absurd to suggest that there are two kinds of people: those who have accidentally shot themselves and those who haven't shot themselves yet. There are irresponsible people out there who have no business owning a firearm, and there are irresponsible people out there who have no business on a motorcycle.

            Ever met someone who was divorced, unemployed, broke, and never made a mistake in his life--somehow it's all someone else's fault? Those guys have no business being on a motorcycle, and they're typically the ones who get into accidents and go around telling people it was unavoidable. Nothing we can choose to avoid is unavoidable, and people who believe otherwise would do well to avoid getting on a motorcycle.

            1. The thing with a motorcycle is, people will make a left turn right through you. I have personally witnessed 3 of those aa an unrelated third party from my car.

              That is an inordinate number, as motorcycles are not that common. To be fair, that is over a 25 year period but still... Three left turns through motorcycles right in front of me. I worry about that more than I worry about high-siding it on some curvy mountain road.

              1. I've never witnessed such an accident myself, but I knew two people that died and one that was very badly injured when cars made left turns right in front of them.

      2. Fleeing the scene of a you almost got killed because of systemic racism?

    2. Horses also panic, throw their rider, and run - and if the rider is being dragged with a foot is caught in the stirrup, that just frightens the horse even more. At least one British royal died that way, the second son and heir of William the Conqueror - this was a young man that had been raised to be a knight since infancy, but with all that training and experience it was still possible to get caught by surprise and killed horribly.

  7. Jingle Bells is the 19th century version of 60s muscle car songs. Drag racing, girls, fights, plus a catchy chorus.

    1. The horse was lean and lank Misfortune was his lot

      More like going on a date in Mom's rusty station wagon.

  8. And that's not even talking about the methane emissions.

  9. experiencing the middle of nowhere atop a horse is a hoot.

    1. Falling from a horse in the middle of nowhere, less so.

  10. I am disappointed the gravest threat from equine-powered travel was not even mentioned - horse farts. The effects of horse farts on global warming will kill us all.

    1. Glue a narwhal tusk (or a simulated one) to the horse's head, and then it will magically become a unicorn, whose farts will then sternly COMBAT global warming!

      Yer welcome ass usual!!!

    2. It's not just the horse farts. Around 1900, there were predictions that New York City was going to be completely buried in horse droppings. Only a few percent of the 4 million New Yorkers could afford a horse, but each horse produces about 5 pounds of poop at a time, many times a day. The human population was both growing and becoming wealthier, so the horse population was growing much faster, and it was easy to extrapolate that any conceivable street-cleaning service would soon be overwhelmed. Other cities such as Chicago, Boston, and Los Angeles would face the same problem eventually.

      Automobiles saved us from the poopocalypse.

  11. Stonewall Jackson died after a bumpy wagon ride to the hospital.

    1. President Grant was arrested and fined for driving a buggy to endanger after being caught speeding down M street in D.C. in 1872

  12. I couldn’t find the exact quote, but to paraphrase the British sergeant talking to raw recruits.

    “This 'ere’s a horse. They bite in the front, kick in the rear, so the only safe place for a rider is in the middle. As you will learn, there’s a reason for everything in the British cavalry."

  13. Thanks to technological progress, cars are much safer than one-horse open sleighs.

    Sure, but every year at Christmas demand for ponies and self-driving pony technology far outstrips production, which just perennially proves that ponies are the undeniable future of transportation. We need to build out infrastructure, enhance tailpipe emissions standards, and offer pony adoption incentives to bring about a greener pastures. Sure, a few people died because of self-driving pony technology, but it's the future and we can't let a few luddite neighsayers stand in the way of progress. Ponies' popularity is the will of the people *and* Mother Nature, and thy will be done. The future cannot be denied.

    1. Buck Back Better.

  14. Buck Joe Biden

  15. OK now do "Don We Now Our Gay Apparel".

  16. the narrator relates being thrown out of the sleigh onto his back and getting laughed at by a romantic rival.

    There's nothing in the song to indicate the laughing gent was a romantic rival.

  17. Do they leave in the part Fauci played in all the deaths or no?

    1. Whoops meant in reply to Fats of Fury. Too much eggnog.

    2. Which way is this? By being unlikable and thus fueling anti-vax / anti-reason hysteria in the population, leading to an internationally embarrassing surge of it?

  18. Of all the Cato Institute posts in this world, this is the Cato Institutiest.

    1. I think that is fair.

  19. Now compare it to elephants.

  20. And just think: Bernie wanted everybody to have a pony.

  21. The British historian Paul Hair called the horse "one of man's most dangerous tools," arguing that "it is likely that per unit of travel the horse was more dangerous than the motor vehicle."

    Not to advocate a ban on cars or horses but...

    The report by the Surface Transportation Policy Project, says the results show that walking is more dangerous in sprawling communities designed for the automobile. "Mean Streets 2000" analyzes federal safety and spending databases and finds that per mile traveled, walking is 36 times more dangerous than driving. It also finds that in 59% of cases for which information is available, pedestrians died in places where they could not find a crosswalk. The report finds that dangerous streets are discouraging people from walking and may be contributing to serious health problems. The amount of walking has dropped 42 percent in the last twenty years, while the percentage of overweight Americans has grown by 40 percent. In addition, places where people walk less tend to have more people who are overweight. A comparison of health and transportation statistics found that for every ten percent decrease in the amount of walking in a community, there is an almost one percent (0.7%) increase in the portion of people who are overweight.

    Pretty sure I recall an article or two from Reason at one point asserting that drunk walking was far more dangerous than drunk driving. Kinda begs the question about how many people killed by horses and sleighs were sober.

    1. It's still illegal to be drunk in charge of a horse in the UK. Not sure whether the excuse that the horse was actually in charge ever worked.

    2. Drunk walking is unquestionably less dangerous to unrelated third parties.

  22. And car deaths are becoming more rare almost everywhere.

    Only because cars have driven people who want to walk or ride bikes or etc - OFF THE ROADS. As cars turn into tanks, they will drive smaller cars off the road. But hey - that's progress for car manufacturers who will thus own the public roads.

    Fucking useless analysis.

    1. The three bicyclists I ditched last year with the truck all had death certificates that indicated, “Died from covid.”

      Bicycles stay off the road. You aren’t paying for them and you can’t maintain safe speed.

      1. Fuck you. They're everyone's roads.

      2. I read that 60-70% of the alleged "deaths" from the "pandemic" were actually killed in bicycling accidents. It is known.

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  24. A dinner guest related their ten year olds last day of school before the Christmas break.

    The music teacher asked for Christmas carol suggestions and jingle bells was requested.

    The teacher corrected the child that jingle bells is inappropriate because it was often sung in minstrel shows by people in black face.

    The parent relayed that this was cancel culture going too far.

    To which I replied, that horse has already left the barn.

  25. For extra amusement, imagine Chelsea's article being read aloud by John Malkovich.

  26. After reading and re-reading this article, I'm still unclear as to whether it is a serious attempt (seriously?) to warn us of the dangers of "one-horse sleighing," (who actually does that anymore?) or yet another in a series of "woke" attempts to destroy yet again one of our most treasured Christmas traditions,i.e., the singing of "Jingle Bells" with a few "Deck the Halls," and "Ho Ho Ho's" thrown in for good measure. For me, I will continue to celebrate every Christmas season by singing this well-worn tune of happiness and joy. Probably whilst consuming an adult beverage - or two. But, not to worry, I would never allow it to get to the point of "HWI," i.e., "Horsing While Impaired."

    1. Sometimes people communicate just to tell a story, not to try to program the reader.

  27. "You take a risk getting up in the morning or sticking your face in a fan".
    -Leslie Nielson
    Jesus Christ, let's all wrap ourselves in bubblewrap now.

  28. Jack Finney made it seem nostalgic. "Jimmy Crack Corn" is another schadenfreude-soaked tale of a character resembling Simon Legree. Harriet Beecher Stowe's Legree made his slaves crush their daily peck of dried corn ration. In the song, "de pony" is "berry shy" when bitten by the blue-tail fly: "De pony run, he jump an' pitch,
    An' tumble massa in de ditch... Scratch one cracker slaver.

  29. Yet more predictable rationalist propaganda. "Oh civilization and science and roads have made things so much better. You know what you need now – a vaccine!"

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