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NY school bans ‘Jingle Bells’ song

Classroom (Wokandapix/Pixabay)
December 28, 2021

Ahead of Christmas, a New York primary school banned the popular Christmas song “Jingle Bells” over concerns that the carol could be considered “controversial or offensive” due to its “questionable past.”

According to a Rochester Beacon report last week, the principal at Brighton’s Council Rock Primary School said in an email that “Jingle Bells” had been replaced with songs that didn’t have “the potential to be controversial or offensive.”

The school decided to remove “Jingle Bells” based in part on a 2017 article written by Boston University professor Kyna Hamill. In the article, Hamill cites documents revealing that the Christmas carol may have first been performed in 1857 during a minstrel show – a once-popular entertainment style that included white actors performing in blackface.

After learning her article prompted the primary school to ban “Jingle Bells,” Hamill said she was “shocked.”

“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.”

When Council Rock staff was notified of Hamill’s response, Brighton Central School District assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction Allison Rioux doubled down on the ban, this time suggesting the song is linked to slavery.

“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,” she told the Beacon. “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.”

“For this reason, along with the idea that there are hundreds of other 5 note songs, we made the decision to not teach the song directly to all students,” she added.

On the “Diversity and Equity” section of the district’s website, a Council Rock music teacher noted several other songs had been banned and replaced with “more contemporary and relevant content.”  

The other songs include “Jump Jim Joe,” originally called “Jump Jim Crow,” and “Ching a Ring Chaw,” which was apparently written in a southern Black dialect. The reason other songs were banned, like the Appalachian folk song “Cumberland Gap” and “Jingle Bells,” is unclear.