From Daily Mail: A professor has claimed that Jingle Bells has racist roots because it was first performed in blackface. ‘The legacy of ‘Jingle Bells’ is one where its blackface and racist origins have been subtly and systematically removed from its history,’ wrote Kyna Hamill, a Boston University theater historian, in a research paper that is making waves.
The claim has shocked fans of one of the world’s most famous Christmas carols, long considered innocuous and inoffensive.
Hamill began researching the origins of Jingle Bells to help settle a dispute between Medford, Massachusetts and Savannah, Georgia – both of which claim to be the place where James Lord Pierpont composed the song.
In the course of her research, Hamill discovered a playbill indicating that Jingle Bells was first performed under the title One Horse Open Sleigh in blackface, for a minstrel show at Ordway Hall on Boston’s Washington Street in 1857. She wrote that traces of the song’s blackface minstrel origins can be found in the music and lyrics, as well as the ‘elements of “male display,” boasting, and the unbridled behavior of the male body onstage’.
‘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,’ Hamill wrote in her paper.
‘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, attention to the circumstances of its performance history enables reflection on its problematic role in the construction of blackness and whiteness in the United States,’ she wrote.
Her claims, published in September, have attracted furious reaction from some who see them as an attack on Christmas traditions.
‘Jingle Bells is racist, White Christmas is racist, Baby it’s Cold Outside is sexist. What the hell happend to the America I grew up in where people didn’t wake up every day trying to find something to be offended by?,’ wrote one Twitter user.
‘What the hell is wrong with these liberal professors do they have nothing better to do besides sit around and Pick A Part our history and call everything racist,’ wrote another person on Twitter.
But as backlash mounted, Hamill spoke out to say that her research had been misinterpreted. ‘In 1857 when it was performed in blackface — that is white men blackening up with burnt cork on their faces — it would have been racist,’ she told the Boston Herald.
‘I never said it was racist now,’ said Hamill. ‘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,’ she said.
Hamill insisted that she wasn’t telling people not to sing Jingle Bells, and that her research had been blown out of proportion. ‘I did not write the article to make people upset. At no point have I ever made a claim on what people should or should not sing at Christmas,’ she said.
Decide for yourself how much Jingle Bells romanticizes whiteness. Read the lyrics to Jingle Bells here.