'Jingle Bells' banned in New York school over possible connection to blackface minstrel shows

The researcher who first discovered the song's connection to minstrel shows said she was "surprised" by the school's decision.

Updated: December 29, 2021 - 7:32pm

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The popular secular holiday song "Jingle Bells" has been banned from a New York elementary school after the carol's original performance was linked to racist minstrel shows, The Rochester Beacon reports.

Council Rock Primary School in Brighton, N.Y., is replacing "Jingle Bells" with songs deemed to not have "the potential to be controversial or offensive," principal Matt Tappon wrote in an email.

School officials said the decision to ban the carol was influenced by a nearly 12,000-word article, "'The story I must tell': 'Jingle Bells' in the Minstrel Repertoire" published in 2017 by Boston University professor Kyna Hamill. 

Hamil wrote that she found documents showing that the song's 1857 premier was in a minstrel show. It was sung by Johnny Pell, who "would have performed the song in such a way as to burlesque incompetent 'Negroes' as buffoons, and it seems likely that he did so through the medium of the blackface dandy." 

James Pierpont, the composer of "Jingle Bells," wrote more than a dozen songs for minstrel troupes, Hamill states. Minstrel shows were a popular form of entertainment in the 19th century performed predominantly by white actors in blackface makeup. 

Hamill was "shocked" and disagrees with the school's decision, the Rochester Beacon stated.

"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," she wrote in an email.

"I am actually quite shocked the school would remove the song from the repertoire," she said. "I, in no way, recommended that it stopped being sung by children."

This is the first time Hamill has heard of a song being banned by a school, and she says the holiday carol "should very much be sung and enjoyed, and perhaps discussed."

When the Rochester Beacon reached out to the school with Hamill's response, assistant superintendent Allison Rioux said: "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. 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."

Throughout her in-depth research, Hamill was unable to find the song's "sleigh bells" alleged link to slave bells.

The removal of "Jingle Bells" appears to be the most recent example of many attempts from the school to be more inclusive, the Rochester Beacon stated.

For example, diversity consultants told teachers in March 2021 to "avoid grouping children by gender." Instead of using "boys and girls," teachers were told to use "Friends, Learners, Council Rock Citizens, Thinkers."