Hold on. How could “Jingle Bells,” the most innocuous of all Christmas songs, be in any way racist? Let’s start by looking at the lyrics from the tune written by James Lord Pierpont in 1857.
Dashing through the snow
In a one-horse open sleigh
O’er the fields we go
Laughing all the way
Bells on bob-tail ring
Making spirits bright
What fun it is to ride and sing
A sleighing song tonight!
Jingle bells, jingle bells,
Jingle all the way.
Oh! what fun it is to ride
In a one-horse open sleigh.
No alarm bells there, right? So what’s the problem? Kyna Hamill, a Boston University theatre professor, says the song is racist because of the nature of the song’s first public performances which say claims was done in blackface.
Her research into the song turned up a playbill that seems to indicate the song–then called “One Horse Open Sleigh”–was performed as part of a touring minstrel show at Ordway Hall in Boston in 1857. Here’s what she wrote in a paper on the subject:
The legacy of ‘Jingle Bells’ is one where its blackface and racist origins have been subtly and systematically removed from its history…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.
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.
To be fair, Hamill says the origins of the song and its first performances were racist, not the song in its current context, so we’re still free to sing it without fear of offending someone. I think.
More at The Daily Mail.