Saturday, 3 December 2011

Elephant No. 62: Jingle Bells

I started my Christmas shopping yesterday, so I'm finally starting to get into the Christmas spirit. So, for today's elephant, jingle bells.

The song "Jingle Bells"—one of the most popular Christmas songs in the world—was originally written for the American Thanksgiving holiday. Penned by James Lord Pierpont in 1950, the song was published as "The One Horse Open Sleigh" in the autumn of 1857.

The original sheet music cover for "The One Horse Open Sleigh".

Inspired by the popular sleigh races in Medford, Massachusettes, the song was written in the town's Simpson Tavern. Although the tavern is long gone, a plaque in the town's main square commemorates the song's birthplace. In 1859, the song was reprinted with the new title, "Jingle Bells, or The One Horse Open Sleigh".

According to music historian James Fuld, the word "jingle" in the title and opening line is an imperative verb: in other words, ordering the bells to jingle. Today, however, the phrase is commonly assumed to refer to a certain type of bell. Mea culpa, because that's how I'm taking it as well, particularly for today's elephant.

Interestingly, the original melody was more classical and rather pretty. The original song also had different words and a different chorus. Over the past 150 years—likely because of the simplicity of its melody—"Jingle Bells" has been the subject of innumerable parodies and homages.

"Jingle Bells" was also the first song to be broadcast from Space when, on December 16, 1965, Gemini 6 astronauts Tom Stafford and Wally Schirra contacted Mission Control with the following report: "We have an object: looks like a satellite going from north to south, probably in polar orbit . . . I see a command module and eight smaller modules in front. The pilot of the command module is wearing a red suit . . ." The astronauts then produced a harmonica and sleighbells they had smuggled aboard, and proceeded to broadcast their rendition of the song.

For today's elephant, I'll be using these multicoloured bells I picked up on a whim a few days ago. I'm always drawn to displays of colour, so I picked these up without even knowing what I would do with them. For two dollars for the two packages, I figured it didn't really matter.

To create an elephant out of the bells, I figured I'd wire them together somehow with this 30-gauge wire. This is the same wire I used for the pine cone elephant. Although it was too thin for the pine cone elephant, I thought it might be good enough for these small bells.

To start, I wound together a few of the largest bells to make the beginning of the head. These three bells flopped about a lot, but I figured that this would sort itself out as I added more bells.

Next I strung together a series of bells for the trunk. I twisted each one in place, but this too was quite floppy and didn't hold its shape. I was beginning to realize that I was going to have to think of something else to make them stay. Clearly, the fine wire that was not good enough for pine cones was also not good enough for teeny bells.

My brilliant solution was to use the slots and holes bisecting each bell to anchor the wire. There must be a better way to do all of this, although this seemed to work well enough for now.

Next I wired the trunk to the head, then added a couple of extra bells to the head area.

After this, I shaped some ears and wired them to the head, using the same through-the-slot wiring afterwards to make them more secure. I attached the ears to the head, wired on another bell or two, and figured this was as good as it was going to get.

I am not, as some of you might have guessed by now, any kind of engineer. Structural stability is best left to the professionals in my book, so this elephant is basically jerry-rigged. It won't fall apart, but the back of it is not a pretty sight. If I had more time, I might add more wire, and perhaps some stabilizing elements like beads. On the other hand, in real life it's kind of pretty in a misshapen-mutant kind of way, so maybe I'll just leave it as it is.

Elephant Lore of the Day
In antiquity, war elephants were often depicted wearing one or more small bells around their necks.

There is a certain amount of speculation as to the purpose of the bells, one of which is that the bells may have been used to terrify the enemy. Given their small size, most historians laugh at the idea that the bells could have terrified anyone or anything.

It has also been suggested that the bells were intended to bring the elephant and rider luck, or that the bells were worn simply to give people enough time to get out of the way and avoid being trampled.

Graeco-Bactrian coin, ca. 200–185 B.C., featuring elephant with bell.

Their likely purpose, however, is much more mundane. In India, elephants wore bells so that, when they went out foraging for food at night, their mahouts could find them in the morning. Elephants often wear bells for the same reason to today.

Elephant bells are now often sold as decorative items and even musical instruments. Struck like gongs, they are often featured in modern musical arrangements.

Set of modern elephant bells.

To Support Elephant Welfare
World Society for the Protection of Animals
Elephant sanctuaries (this Wikipedia list allows you to click through to information on a number of sanctuaries around the world)
Performing Animal Welfare Society
Bring the Elephant Home
African Wildlife Foundation

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