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Tipsheet

NY School Replaced Popular Christmas Song 'Jingle Bells' Over Racist Origins

Richard Alan Hannon/The Advocate via AP

A New York state public school did not sing the Christmas song, "Jingle Bells," due to its origins being linked to 19th-century minstrel shows in which white people wore blackface.

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Council Rock Primary School replaced the Christmas classic with other songs that did not have "the potential to be controversial or offensive," principal Matt Tappon told the Rochester Beacon, which first broke the story on Dec. 23.

Tappon and other school staff confirmed to the local paper that the decision to nix the song was based, in part, on a 2017 article by professor Kyna Hamill, director of Boston University’s Core Curriculum, who detailed her research into the origins of "Jingle Bells," its composer, James L. Pierpont, and other mid-19th century songs about sleighs.

She obtained documents revealing that the song’s first public performance may have been in 1857 at a Boston minstrel show, a type of entertainment at the time that included white performers sporting blackface.

Hamill, however, does not believe her findings should have led to the school replacing the song. 

When informed by the Beacon that her research was partly the reason why the school removed the song, she said that she was "quite shocked the school would remove the song from the repertoire" and that she did not recommend that it stop being sung by children.

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"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," Hamill said.

"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 continued.

Brighton Central School District Superintendent Kevin McGowan addressed the decision on Dec. 28, writing in a letter posted to the district’s website that "we couldn’t be more proud of our staff and the work they continue to do to reflect on what they teach and how they teach in an ongoing effort to be more culturally responsive, thoughtful, and inclusive."

"Choosing songs other than 'Jingle Bells' wasn’t a major policy initiative, a 'banning' of the song or some significant change to a concert repertoire done in response to a complaint," McGowan wrote. "This wasn’t 'liberalism gone amok' or 'cancel culture at its finest' as some have suggested. Nobody has said you shouldn’t sing 'Jingle Bells' or ever in any way suggested that to your children. I can assure you that this situation is not an attempt to push an agenda."

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"We were not and are not even discussing the song and its origins, whatever they may be," he continued. "This was very simply a thoughtful shift made by thoughtful staff members who thought they could accomplish their instructional objective using different material. The change in material is also not something being forced on children or propaganda being spread. The teachers have never taught about the song in any way when it was being used then or in the midst of deciding not to use it."

McGowan also wrote that the first performance of 'Jingle Bells' occurred in minstrel shows where white actors wore blackface "does actually matter when it comes to questions of what we use as material in school."

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