A New York elementary school has replaced the popular Christmas song “Jingle Bells” with a replacement song over concerns that the staple Christmas carol is racist.
The Council Rock Primary School in Brighton, New York replaced the classic with other songs that did not have the “potential to be controversial or offensive.” According to principal Matt Tappon, the decision to remove the song was based on a 2017 article arguing that the Jingle Bells’ author may have first performed the song at a Boston minstrel show in 1857.
Minstrel shows were a type of entertainment in the 19th century up until the mid 20th century, which included white performers in blackface.
The article, written by professor Kyna Hamill, director of Boston University’s Core Curriculum, is a 12,000-word dive into the origin of the song, the life of its composer James L. Pierpont, and the popularity of carols in the mid-1800s.
Despite the school’s move to nix the popular song, Hamill says she does not support the decision and expressed shock. In an email to the Rochester Beacon, Hamill said “I am actually quite shocked the school would remove the song from the repertoire. … I, in no way, recommended that it stopped being sung by children,” when it was pointed out to her that the decision was made partly based on her research.
“My article tried to tell the story of the first performance of the song, I do not connect this to the popular Christmas tradition of singing the song now,” said the professor.
“The very fact of (“Jingle Bells’”) popularity has to do (with) the very catchy melody of the song, and not to be only understood in terms of its origins in the minstrel tradition. … I would say it should very much be sung and enjoyed, and perhaps discussed,” she added.
Hamill told the publication that this is the first time she has ever heard of a school removing the song from its repertoire based on her studies.
The Rochester Beacon fired back at the school, asking Allison Rioux, Brighton Central School District assistant superintendent, for answers regarding the decision to cut the song. The journalist pointed out that Hamill did not support the move, to which the school official replied:
“Some suggest that the use of collars on slaves with bells to send an alert that they were running away is connected to the origin of the song Jingle Bells,” said Rioux, who provided a different reason for the removal of the song. “While we are not taking a stance to whether that is true or not, we do feel strongly that this line of thinking is not in agreement with our district beliefs to value all cultures and experiences of our students.”
“For this reason,” Rioux added, “along with the idea that there are hundreds of other 5 note songs, we made the decision to not teach the song directly to all students.”
Sleigh bells on horses date as far back as ancient Rome and were largely adorned by horses in the Kievan Rus’ empire. The linkage of sleigh bells to “slave bells” is not mentioned whatsoever in Hamill’s paper, either.
“The use of bells on enslaved peoples may be true, but there is no connection to the song that I have discovered in my research,” the professor explained. “Perhaps finding a well-referenced source for this claim might be in order if that is what (school officials) want to determine as the cause for not singing it.”