The racist origins of "Jingle Bells"

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tags: racism, Christmas

[Kyna Hamill, a theater history professor at Boston University] wrote in a paper published this September in Cambridge University’s theater history journal, Theatre Survey, the story of “Jingle Bells” — originally titled “One Horse Open Sleigh” — is one in which “the racial history of the song has remained hidden behind its local and seasonal affection.” First performed on September 15, 1857, at the Washington Street minstrelsy, Ordway Hall, the song was one of many attempts by [songwriter James] Pierpont to cash in on the racist entertainment that was popular at the time.

In the study, Hamill found that such onstage minstrel shows were part of a larger genre of satire at the time that “lampooned” black participation in wintry activities such as sleigh riding. The field often depicted black people “behaving foolishly, grotesquely, and incompetently.” Performances of “Jingle Bells” included stereotyped “dandy” characters that mockingly portrayed black people within Northern culture.

The song, however, has since “eluded its racialized past” and is “a prime example” of how some popular 19th century music’s “blackface and racist origins have been subtly and systematically removed from its history,” according to Hamill. It wasn’t until decades later that it became a Christmas song, much less the popular holiday anthem it is today. Upon the festive recitations of the song each season, there’s likely not much reflection upon its origins profiting off the racist caricatures of black people.

Read entire article at Boston Globe

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