Jingle bells

Currier and Ives.

It’s the Holiday season. The frigid nights are the longest of the year, and it seems that you can touch the stars in the crystalline sky. The crops were harvested on the McCollough farms, and long rows of Captain John’s ceramic crocks (or later Atlas canning jars) weighed down the rough-sawn oak shelves in the root cellar. Smoked hams hanged in the rafters of the cool basement. Heaping stacks of dry oak, rock maple, and chestnut were piled in the dooryard, and the cabins and farmhouses were banked with rough hay against the cold December wind. Christmas was a time when our McCollough ancestors could take a break from farm chores and make time for winter fun. Calm, bright winter nights were perfect for a sleigh ride.

With great excitement and anticipation, the McCollough boys were sent to retrieve the “one horse open sleigh” from under a pile of feed sacks in the back of the shed. While the sleigh was dusted and cleaned, the girls were sent to the attic where the buffalo blanket was stored. “Kit” or “Dandy” were fed a Christmas carrot and led from their stall, harness and tack snugged tight, and hitched to the sleigh.

The most important tack was the long strings of brass bells. For months they hung silently in the barn on a long pipe where the platform scales were located. The McCollough bells dated back to the mid-1800s and were of many sizes and shapes, each with their own tone. Small acorn-shaped neck bells were strapped around the horse’s neck or collar. Big Swedish hip bells with their clanging brass voices buckled to the back strap of the harness and bounced on the horse’s rump. Belly bells were mounted on a long leather strap and were buckled over the traces of the harness around the horse’s belly. These cast brass “petal bells” were numbered in different sizes from largest on the belly to the smallest on the horse’s back. These were the “jingle bells” that chimed in rhythm with the horse’s gait. Shaft chimes were mounted in groups of four on a steel bar that was strapped to the bottom of the sleigh. Each family’s sleigh could be recognized at a distance from their unique sound. On Christmas Eve, grandpa would strap on all of the bells. ‘Sleigh bells ring, are you listening, in the lane the snow is glistening.’

Christmas eve was filled with the sound of whinnying horses, jingling bells, giggling children, and Christmas carols that echoed between the western Pennsylvania hills. Families in sleighs met under the starlight on the lanes and woods roads and exchanged Christmas greetings. Curtis McCollough wrote this recollection of a sleigh ride on the McCollough farm in 1937 when he was 6 years old.

There were two sleighs in the car garage on the Curtis Foy Emrick McCollough farm. One was a cutter, a one-horse open sleigh with long shafts for a single horse. The other sleigh was a two-seated sedan sleigh, mounted on two rocking sleds. This large sleigh was a two-horse sleigh Curtis used to take his family to church and to visit friends and relatives. Hanging in the barn were strings of sleigh bells of various tones. They were great fun to shake when were kids. The two sleighs and the surrey were burned when we tore down William Wallace McCollough’s log house in 1937. The steel hubs and wheel rims were gathered from the ashes, along with the sleigh runners, and thrown on the scrap iron pile. The sleigh bells, bridles, and saddles burned with the barn in the spring of 1948. Today these items would be priceless, but in 1937 they were obsolete and taking up valuable space for automobiles and farm machinery. Both sleighs were in excellent condition when we burned them. Antique farm implements today are popular items at rural auctions. One winter Sunday, early in 1937, Curtis hitched up the two-horse sedan sleigh, got out the sleigh bells, and gave Don, Edith, Sheila, and I a sleigh ride. He heated up bricks and wrapped them in burlap to keep our feet warm. We went up the old dirt road and over the railroad bridge to the Keith McCollough farm. Of course, us kids sang many verses of Jingle Bells and any other winter song we could think of. It must have brought back memories for Curtis, as he enjoyed it. It was the only time we ever used either of the sleighs.

Ed Kepple of Chicora provided this sleigh story told by his grandmother, Mary Esther McCollough, that took place about 1915.

Mary, several of her sisters, Theodore, and Byron McCollough (Mary’s brothers) were on their way to church one Sunday. The road coming into Chicora, where Parker’s Appliance Store is today, was just a dirt path through the woods. It snowed a lot the night before and they hit a large snow drift and flipped the sleigh over. The McCollough family were thrown out of the sleigh.  It was amazing that no one was hurt. Mary said the girls huddled in the blankets while the boys tried to right the sleigh. She said it was impossible, so the boys walked into town to the Lutheran church and the men from the village came and righted the sleigh. They all piled back on the sleigh and went to church. Mary said she could not recall whether they were late for the service or if they held up church until everyone arrived.

Oh, what fun it is to ride (or maybe not!) in a one horse open sleigh…

2 thoughts on “Jingle bells

  1. What lovely memories! I always thought of sleighs being in New England, or upstate New York. Never did I realize, growing up in Kepples’ Corners, that we had sleighs and sleigh rides (and jingle bells!) so close to home. The Keith McCollough farm is where my grandfather grew up.

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