Was “Jingle Bells” really written in Savannah? New book Secret Savannah reveals the weird and wonderful about one of the South’s most charming cities.
Christopher Berinato moved to Savannah, Georgia, from northern Virginia in 1998. His brother was attending the Savannah College of Art and Design and in need of a roommate, so Berinato applied and got in. “I just fell in love with the city. I can’t imagine living anywhere else since then,” he says.
He eventually met his wife, who was born and raised in Savannah, and now manages Gallery Espresso, a coffee shop and art venue on Chippewa Square. He meets interesting people all day long and hears plenty of stories about his adopted home.
His assignment for Secret Savannah was to find 90 cool things in the city to write about. “I started going through my memory bank and there were a lot of places that immediately jumped to the top of the list,” he says.
Echo Square is a spot on River Street that most people don’t know about. “It’s just some pavers in the square that form an “X” and if you stand in the middle of the “X” and speak, it creates this echo chamber around your head,” explains Berinato.
Pinkie Masters is a pop dive bar where Pres. Jimmy Carter gave a toast to owner Pinkie on Saint Patrick’s Day in the 1970s. The Powder Magazine is an abandoned castle out in the woods that was once used to store the city’s dynamite and explosives during the 1800s. And, of course, Flannery O’Connor’s Childhood Home is the site where she trained a chicken to walk backward at the age of six.
But it’s the most famous holiday song of all time that’s the most surprising, unknown fact about Savannah. Berinato says historians are 90 percent sure that “Jingle Bells” was written in the coastal city.
The story goes that James Lord Pierpont, music director at Savannah’s Unitarian Church on Oglethorpe Square, had gone up to Medford, Massachusetts, to visit his girlfriend. Even though Medford has their own sign saying Pierpont wrote “Jingle Bells” there, it’s believed that he wrote it back in Savannah while missing his girlfriend up north. Pierpont’s father and brother were abolitionists, but he joined and fought for the Confederacy. He also wrote Confederate fight songs, but he’s best remembered for the beloved “Jingle Bells.”
Even though it snows only once every 10 or 20 years in Savannah, the city lays claim to the lyrics “dashing through the snow in a one-horse open sleigh.”
Berinato says his favorite holiday tradition is attending the annual Christmas show at the 200-year-old Historic Savannah Theatre. “Because Savannah doesn’t get a lot of snow, it’s not as associated with Christmas as some places up north, but all the historical homes go out of their way with the trees and decorations, so the historic area always looks gorgeous,” Berinato says.
There’s also caroling from the Old Town Trolley, holiday jazz concerts, the Christmas Festival at Trustees Garden and a Jingle Bells tour of Laurel Grove Cemetery, where Pierpont is buried—plus lots more events before Savannah rings in the New Year.
Pick up a copy of Secret Savannah to learn more about the city’s weird, wonderful and obscure sights or give the book as gift this season.
Photo credits, from top: Fountain and houses by Casey Jones; Savannah Theatre by Geoff Johnson Photography.