Caterpickles thinks too much about Christmas carols: “What’s a bobtail?”

Last week, my daughter’s choir performed at her Lower School Assembly. Naturally, Daddyo and I went. The price of enjoying our daughter’s warbling came at the very end of the assembly when we were all invited to join the holiday carol sing-a-long.

There’s nothing like seeing the lyrics of traditional holiday songs projected in giant letters on a screen in a school auditorium for making you realize just how weird they are.

I mean, there I stood, trilling merrily about jingle bells and sleigh rides when all of a sudden I realized that I had absolutely no idea what bells on bobtails ring actually meant.

Clearly, not this.



Yes, there really is such a thing as the American Bobtail Cat. But luckily for Canelo, the lyrics of Jingle Bells have nothing to do with cats, bedecked with bells or otherwise.

Bells on bobtails actually means the second thing you thought of when you heard it.

Daddyo, curiously: “Bells on a semi that’s not pulling a container?”

Who knew these were called bobtails? (Photo via Urban Insurance Agency)

Who knew these were called bobtail trucks? (Photo via Urban Insurance Agency)

Ok, make that the third thing you thought of.

The Nine-Year-Old, helpfully: “Bells on the tail of a horse named Bob?”

Closer. Although the name of the horse doesn’t really matter.

Horses who pull sleighs and carriages often have their tails cut short (bobbed) or doubled up into a bun, hence the term bobtail. Horse-drawn sleighs make almost no noise in the snow, so when James Lord Pierpont first wrote Jingle Bells in 1857, it was a common safety practice to string bells in the horse’s tail which would jingle as the horse jogged along. The tempo of Pierpont’s song mimics the sound of those long-forgotten bobtail bells.

Horse with a bobbed tail pulling a sleigh in winter. (Photo via Weiner Elementary)

Horse with a bobbed tail pulling a sleigh in winter. (Photo via Weiner Elementary)

Tune in next week when we explore what it means to Troll the ancient Yuletide carol.

Photo (minus words) via Maritravel on Pixabay.

Photo (minus words) via Maritravel on Pixabay.

Um, no.

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About Shala Howell

I spent two decades helping companies like Bell Labs, Juniper Networks, and a genetic testing company that was later acquired by CVS translate some of the world’s most complicated concepts into actionable, understandable English. Now I'm working on a much harder problem -- fostering children’s curiosity and engagement in the scientific, artistic, and linguistic world that surrounds them. The first book in my Caterpickles Parenting Series, What’s That, Mom?, focuses on how to use public art to nurture children’s curiosity in the world around them. My next book will focus on science, and how parents without a science degree can answer their curious child's questions without enrolling in a college level refresher course. In the meantime, you can find me blogging about life with a very curious Eleven-Year-Old at, chatting about books and the writing life at, and tweeting about books, writing, science, & things that make me smile at @shalahowell.
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2 Responses to Caterpickles thinks too much about Christmas carols: “What’s a bobtail?”

  1. rayworth1973 says:

    A bobtail was a tow truck we used to haul AGE equipment around on the flightline in the Air Force. By the way, AGE is Aerospace Ground Equipment. It’s all that stuff you see at the airport that they use to work on the planes…well usually.


  2. Pingback: Caterpickles thinks too much about Christmas carols: “How do you troll an ancient Yuletide carol?” | CATERPICKLES

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