Before you slip on you bubble coat to go Christmas carolling this weekend, you may want to learn the history of some of the popular songs you have in your lineup. One well-known holiday jingle may have a problematic past, according to a professor at Boston University. Kyna Hamill, a professor in BU's English department, said the Christmas song “Jingle Bells” has racist origins in a research paper published earlier this year. And while no one's saying you can't still enjoy the tune, it's definitely worth learning why its origins are problematic.
The paper, which was published in the theatre history journal Theatre Survey, is called “The story I must tell: ‘Jingle Bells’ in the Minstrel Repertoire.” Hamill's goal in the paper was to more thoroughly examine the connection between the "much-romanticized" Christmas song and minstrel performances in antebellum Boston. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, minstrel shows were a form of entertainment created by white people to make fun of Black people and portray them as lazy and uneducated. In minstrel shows, white actors would dress up in blackface and mimic southern accents that were associated with Black people.
According to Hammill’s research, “Jingle Bells” wasn’t first performed by friendly carollers or school-aged children at their annual Christmas play. Instead, the song made its debut on Sept. 15, 1857, when a minstrel performer in Boston named Johnny Pell took to the stage of Ordway Hall. The song was originally known as “One Horse Open Sleigh.”
“The legacy of ‘Jingle Bells’ is one where its blackface and racist origins have been subtly and systematically removed from its history,” wrote Hamill in her research paper. This is to say that, while Jingle Bells is not (and should not, according to Hamill) be considered racist now, it's important to acknowledge where the song came from — and the problematic reasons it may have become popular.
But let’s rewind. Hamill found evidence that the origins of “Jingle Bells” are actually racist, but why did she start investigating in the first place? Well, it all started after the “Jingle Bells War.” (No, I did not just make that up.) Two towns — Medford, Massachussetts, and Savannah, Georgia — were fighting over the song’s birthplace in 2016, which prompted Hamill's original interest. But Hamill argues that laying claim to the birthplace of this song is much more complicated than who should have the commemorative plaque. “Its origins emerged from the economic needs of a perpetually unsuccessful man, the racial politics of antebellum Boston, the city’s climate, and the intertheatrical repertoire of commercial blackface performers moving between Boston and New York,” she wrote.
“Although ‘One Horse Open Sleigh,’ for most of its singers and listeners, may have eluded its racialized past and taken its place in the seemingly unproblematic romanticization of a normal ‘white’ Christmas," Hamill wrote, "attention to the circumstances of its performance history" allows listeners to reflect on how the song may have contributed to "the construction of blackness and whiteness in the United States."
So does this mean you should erase the lyrics of “Jingle Bells” from your mind and slam your door on every caroler who sings it on your stoop? No, it's still OK to enjoy the Christmas tune.
“I never said it was racist now,” Hamill told the Boston Herald. “Nowhere did I say that. My point was that because it is now included in the Christmas catalog of songs — attention is only given to it during the Christmas season — it has eluded rigorous study.” Basically, just because “Jingle Bells” is considered a Christmas song now doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be critically examined.
People are always looking deeper into holiday traditions we take for granted today. Whether it’s Santa’s race or the gender of reindeer, nothing is truly off limits — and nor should it be. If you’re a huge fan of “Jingle Bells,” it’s not a big deal; go ahead and keep singing it. No one is going to confuse you with a 19th century minstrel actor. But its important to critically acknowledge its problematic past — as with other Christmas traditions.