Jingle all the way? Maybe not

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“Jingle Bells” is one of the most performed and well-known secular holiday songs ever written, not only in the United States, but around the world. It’s the first song to have been broadcast from space—by Gemini 6 astronauts nine days before Christmas in 1965. It’s regularly been sung at the White House—most recently by President Barack Obama and his family upon lighting the National Christmas Tree in 2016.

But “Jingle Bells” isn’t being sung anymore at Brighton’s Council Rock Primary School. 

“Jingle Bells,” explained Council Rock principal Matt Tappon in an email, has been replaced with other songs that don’t have “the potential to be controversial or offensive.”

“Jingle Bells” offensive? How so? 

James L. Pierpont

Tappon and other staff confirmed by email that the decision to remove the song was based in part on information in a 2017 article written by professor Kyna Hamill, director of Boston University’s Core Curriculum. Hamill’s article is a deep dive (nearly 12,000 words including appendices and footnotes) into the origin of “Jingle Bells,” the life of its composer, James L. Pierpont, and the popularity of sleigh songs in the mid-1800s. She found documents showing that the song’s first public performance may have occurred in 1857 at a Boston minstrel show. Minstrelsy was a then-popular form of entertainment in which white actors performed in blackface.

But when told that Council Rock has removed ‘Jingle Bells” based partly on her research, Hamill responded in an email: “I am actually quite shocked the school would remove the song from the repertoire. … I, in no way, recommended that it stopped being sung by children.”

She continued:

“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.

“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.”

Hamill, who has spoken to media and individuals nationally and internationally about her research, added that this is the first time she’s heard of a school removing the song from its repertoire.  

When I shared Hamill’s response with Council Rock staff, Allison Rioux, Brighton Central School District assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, offered a different reason for removing “Jingle Bells.” She wrote:  

“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.

“For this reason,” Rioux concluded, “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.”

A quick Google search shows that bells on horses were common as far back as Roman times. The linkage of “sleigh bells” with slave bells is not addressed in Hamill’s paper. When I asked Hamill about this, she responded:

“The use of bells on enslaved peoples may be true, but there is no connection to the song that I have discovered in my research. Perhaps finding a well-referenced source for this claim might be in order if that is what (school officials) want to determine as the cause for not singing it.”

In today’s world, with culture wars too often raging and school children and parents increasingly caught in the middle, it’s often difficult to determine whether a given decision is just politically correct or actually wise. 

And certainly, within the scope of trying to reform the curriculum of a school district comprising four buildings, hundreds of professional and support staff, and thousands of students to be more diverse and inclusive, the removal of one song is a small matter. 

But once you get that tune in your head—“Dashing through the snow, in a one-horse open sleigh”—it’s hard to get it out. I got the tune in my head, so I figured—small matter or not—I might as well try to learn more about how and why the school came to remove it. 

Besides, as a Brighton resident and alumnus of Council Rock, I have an affinity for the school and like to understand what’s going on there. 

A sleigh song’s story

I first learned that Council Rock had dropped “Jingle Bells” from a notice posted earlier this year on the district’s public website. In a section on “Diversity and Equity,” the district chronicles its years-long anti-racist, anti-bias initiative, including the assessment of curriculum and teaching practices through a lens of being inclusive and culturally responsive.

Second-grade teachers, for example, noted their priority of making lessons “representative of our community of learners and their diverse backgrounds.” (Diversity consultants hired by the district have advised Council Rock teachers to “move away” from using gendered terms such as “Boys and Girls” and instead refer to students as “learners,” “friends,” “thinkers,” or “Council Rock Citizens.”)

In that same update, a Council Rock music teacher reported that some songs they’d been teaching were now found to have a “questionable past.” These songs are “no longer in our repertoire,” the music teacher wrote, and have been replaced by “more contemporary and relevant content.”   

Some of the songs, such as “Jump Jim Joe” (original title: “Jump Jim Crow”) and “Ching a Ring Chaw” (written in supposed southern Black dialect), clearly are racist in conception or lyrics. The concern with others, such as “Cumberland Gap” (an Appalachian folk song played on banjo or fiddle) and “Jingle Bells,” is unclear. 

In her article, Hamill provides some background on “Jingle Bells” composer James L. Pierpont. Born in Boston in 1822, Pierpont initially tried many ways of making a living— during the California Gold Rush he moved out West but had no luck—before settling into a career as music teacher, church organist, and songwriter. His father, an ardent abolitionist, and one older brother were both Unitarian ministers.

Jingle Bells

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! Oh!

Jingle bells, jingle bells,

Jingle all the way.

Oh! what fun it is to ride

In a one-horse open sleigh. Hey!

Jingle bells, jingle bells,

Jingle all the way;

Oh! what fun it is to ride

In a one-horse open sleigh.

Pierpont wrote in many genres, including ballads, light opera, and polkas. He wrote “Jingle Bells” (originally titled “One Horse Open Sleigh”) at a time, notes Hamill, when sleigh songs were all the rage. She writes: “As a synonym for youth (not unlike fast cars in the twentieth century), the mania for sleigh riding made its way into popular literary, theatrical, and visual culture.” And that included the minstrel stage. 

The song itself consists not only of the familiar opening verse and chorus, but three additional verses that describe, in Hamill’s words, a “youthful courtship ritual.” They describe a young couple sitting next to each other when suddenly their fast-moving sleigh overturns, landing them together in the snow.    

(Of these verses, the New England Historical Society explains: “In its day, Pierpont’s tune was the equivalent of a Beach Boy’s song about fast cars, pretty girls and sneaking off to be together in private—a sleigh was one of the few places where a young couple could be alone and unsupervised.”)

Hamill hypothesizes that Pierpont “needed the work,” and therefore wrote the song and others like it to conform to the conventions of minstrel shows at that time, such as fast sleighs, bells, and young people courting and laughing. He wrote such songs, she says, “out of pure financial necessity.”  

Hamill’s article makes no suggestion that Pierpont was an ideologue. He was peripatetic, his interests varying with time and place: As a young man living in the North, he served in the U.S. Navy; in midlife, having moved to Georgia to work as music director at his brother’s church and remarry, when war broke out he served briefly as clerk in a Confederate company, even writing songs for the regiment.

In researching “Jingle Bells,” Hamill noted that one of her original aims had been to resolve a long-standing dispute as to where Pierpont had composed the song: the Boston suburb of Medford, Mass., or Savannah, Ga. That issue remains unresolved and both communities continue to claim credit.

An unanswered question

The Council Rock music teachers directly involved in the decision to remove “Jingle Bells” from the school’s repertoire have retired, and Brighton assistant superintendent Rioux and Council Rock principal Tappon both declined to speak directly with me about the decision.

If they had spoken with me, I’d have liked to better understand the decision-making process about removing the song and to learn what “contemporary and relevant” songs have replaced it. I’d also have liked to speak with those in the school community—staff or families—who may have expressed concerns about the song to better understand and include their points of view.  

In the end, what we seem to have is one of the world’s most popular songs that, according to one researcher, may have been written to be performed 164 years ago in a minstrel show, a racist form of entertainment demeaning to blacks. And yet the song’s lyrics, only the first verse of which is sung today, are not racist, and the author appears not to have been an ideologue. 

So, here’s the question we’re left with: Is Council Rock’s decision to stop singing “Jingle Bells” a reasonable step to create a more inclusive school curriculum, or an instance of well-intentioned overreach? 

It’s hard to know. What do you think?

For now, let’s end on a musical note:

One of the consulting firms hired by the Brighton Central School District to help implement its diverse and inclusive initiative is called the Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools. It’s part of New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development. 

In December 2019, NYU’s Steinhardt School announced it would host a Christmas Jazz Concert. Leading the All-University Jazz Orchestra would be eight-time Grammy nominee Bobby Sanabria. In 2018, Sanabria was honored as a musician and educator by the U.S. Congressional Black Caucus. The Christmas concert, said Sanabria, would feature young artists who represent “NYU’s commitment to cultural diversity.” The concert program, stated an NYU press release, would include Christmas classics “adapted to Afro-Latin rhythms,” among them “Winter Wonderland,” “Carol of the Bells”—and “Jingle Bells.”

Peter Lovenheim is Washington correspondent for the Rochester Beacon and author of “In the Neighborhood” and “The Attachment Effect.” He can be reached at [email protected].

32 thoughts on “Jingle all the way? Maybe not

  1. Removing Jingle Bells from the repertoire is another sad example of manufactured outrage by people who are forever looking for reasons to be offended where no real offense exists. Should we call lemonade a racist drink because it was commonly served to plantation masters by those enslaved to them? Should we give up on democracy because classical Athens had slaves who couldn’t vote?

    There is, of course, no shortage of other songs to celebrate the season, though the grievance industry also tends to be antagonistic to honoring the religious basis of Christmas, thereby cutting off students from the huge panoply of Christmas-themed choral music created over hundreds of years by composers both famous and lesser-known. A myopic focus on being “contemporary and relevant” means cutting students off from a broader view of the world. Shouldn’t “diversity” include learning to appreciate material from the past?

    Can one program an enjoyable and well-rounded concert without Jingle Bells? Of course. But the censorious, suspicious, self-righteous attitude that excludes it is an unhealthy approach to pedagogy that has implications which go much farther.

  2. It’s about time they stopped exposing people who identify as primary school students to this dangerous pro-sleigh agenda!

  3. From the facts that Peter Lovenheim recites it seems as though the Council Rock decision is poorly researched and kind of silly. On the other hand bloviating at length about “culture wars” on the basis of an ill advised replacement of “Jingle Bells” with other songs in a single elementary school music curriculum is equally stupid.

    Surely, the walls of democracy and the pillars of the republic are not going to come tumbling down based on the songs that children sing in their holiday plays. There are actually real and desperate problems that children and parents face during the holidays and throughout their lives, and we don’t really need the distraction of manufactured controversy to divert our attention from their solutions.

    Of course Peter Lovenheim, like many other commentators, specializes in faux outrage to stoke readership numbers, so we can all feel free to take his pontification with a grain of salt and a big dollop of tired resignation to the vicissitudes of the modern version of yellow journalism.

    • Of course Rob Brown specialized in a cynicism and personal attack about faux outrage where no outrage exists, real or imagined, so we can all feel free to take his pontification with a big grain of narcissism and dollop of unexplained vitriol and (… looks up vicissitude …) something something ( big-word salad).

    • Some people will find any excuse to use the word “vicissitudes” in a sentence.

      You should look up the meaning of the term “yellow journalism”. It does not refer to well-researched articles that merely seek to share knowledge with the taxpaying public of how schools are making their educational decisions.

      (And as for a “manufactured controversy”, I would say that the assistant superintendent’s invention of “sleigh bells” as a reference to tracking runaway slaves shows that the administration is not above doing a little manufacturing of their own.)

  4. Overreach it clearly is, and it makes people like me, who are roughly of the same mind about the need to clean our moral house, mightily uncomfortable. You want your vacuum cleaner to pull out the dust, not pull up the carpet. So we want our schools to edit the indecent, immoral and dangerous, but not all the the fibers of our culture, nor even the opportunity to learn from the indecent, immoral and dangerous. There is nothing to be learned here, except that if you go looking for something hard enough, you’ll convince yourself you’ve found it. The original overreach (the conjecture that because the song had been appropriated in a one-off way by a minstrel show for purposes that there’s no evidence the composer sanctioned) belongs to that researcher, but now it suddenly belongs to the powers that be at Council Rock Primary School. It will likely stir up a backlash of disrespect for the whole idea of curating our cultural past. The man who wrote “One horse open sleigh” seems to have had not a racist bone in his body. That someone else might have appropriated his ditty for racist reasons doesn’t make it a racist song. By that measure, all of us who put white sheets on our beds are racists. We need a good deal more grace in how we approach this subject if we’re to actually make the world a more just place for all.

  5. Really? Based on what I gathered from the article, a decision weighed two points of view. One was well researched and appears to conclude that the origin of the song had nothing to do with racism. The other point sounds like it is based on a “hearsay” conclusion that may or may not be true and may or may not be offensive. In the current environment of reducing and eliminating racism (a totally worthy cause) owners/managers/leaders are facing these decisions with greater and greater frequency. While I don’t agree with the decision made, I feel for the owner/manager/leader when faced with ultimatum to make a decision. In today’s world, leaders are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. I thank God I’m retired.

  6. Our two thirty-something children recall their days at Council Rock with fondness. I have inquired about their musical recollections and they can not recall Jingle Bells or other primary school musical selections. They do remember great teachers and classmates (known at the time as girls and boys). I can confirm that singing, or not singing, Jingle Bells at Council Rock had no adverse effect on their development into fine adults.

    In a world where many young students do not master the learning necessary to reach their potential, my concern is the diversion of educator time to the irrelevant topic of the appropriateness of Jingle Bells. If I were still a Brighton taxpayer, the fact that someone investigated the topic would suggest that the district must be over-staffed.

    On a lighter note, I commend the post “Crashing Through the Snow: The Grim Sarcasm Behind ‘Jingle Bells’” published at humanprogress.org. The writer notes that “During the time of horse-drawn vehicles, accidents frequently caused not only delays and inconveniences but also injuries and deaths.” She notes the Britain’s registrar-general estimated a horse-related mortality rate of around 55 deaths annually per million people in 1874. The author calculates a United Kingdom 2020 mortality rate from motor vehicle accidents at 23 deaths annually per million people.

    Thus, modern car rides are more than twice as safe as Victorian horse carriage rides!

    In a world anxious about Covid and so many other problems, we can be grateful that our time on earth is right now and not in the “good old days.”

    • Equine mortality in the Victorian era was rampant everywhere – UK, US, Europe, Asia, Africa. Mortality isn’t any kind of “lighter note.” Must be a Shakespearean sense of humor at work.

    • As a Brighton taxpayer, I do not consider it a “diversion of educator time” when our teachers put thought into the curriculum, especially when that thought includes evaluating classroom content through the lens of diversity and history. I hope other districts are doing the same.

      • “Evaluating classroom content through the lens of diversity and history”

        Is simply another turn of phrase for pushing left wing propaganda in the classroom, rather than facts.

        It’s both a massive waste of time and should be pushed back on whenever it’s spotted. Like now. The principal, superintendent, and any “teacher” involved should be fired.

  7. In line with the decision by principal Matt Tappon and the Powers-That-Be at the Council Rock School to remove “Jingle Bells” form their approved song list due to its, “potential to be controversial or offensive”, I would like to suggest to Tappon et. al. another candidate for exclusion due to it’s even greater “potential”.

    That song is “The Star Spangled Banner”

    One need but plug into a search engine the question, “Is the Star Spangled Banner racist” to find hundreds of thousands of entries which make clear that the question has been one of significant interest for years with many researchers concluding that the racist attitudes of the slaveholding Francis Scott Key made their way into his lyrics.

    This being the case, clearly our national anthem’s, “potential to be controversial or offensive” is obvious and we should expect Principal Tappon to immediately take the appropriate measures.

  8. Thank you, Peter Lovenheim, for this article, which is both impressively researched and written. As the parent of a Brighton student I appreciate having ALL the information. The public announcement of the banning of the song at Council Rock leaves me both shaking my head and sad, and I feel for the leaders who are faced with stepping in front of this train.

  9. The district “leaders” need to get their heads out of their you-know-whats and start growing a few pairs of you-know-whats. Stop kowtowing to nonsense.

  10. In view of the well-documented connection between the cotton industry and slavery, it would makes sense for the schools to ban students and teachers from wearing cotton clothing.

  11. He also wrote music for the Confederacy when it seceded from the Union, including “Our Battle Flag”, “Strike for the South” and “We Conquer or Die”.

    Here’s a lyric from the latter song:

    The war drum is beating, prepare for the fight,
    The stern bigot Northman exults in his might.
    Gird on your bright weapons your foemen are nigh,
    |: And this be our watchword, “We conquer or die!” 😐

  12. Wow! It’s hard to add to the thoughtful comments already posted. My great-grandfather Ligori Stephen Normandeau built one-horse open sleighs in Schuyler Falls, N. Y. in the late 19th century. That may not make me an authority on the present topic, but I have studied a lot about the history of European racism. The standard applied by the Council Rock Primary School, if applied consistently, would allow anyone to remove any song from a school’s repertoire by speculating that it was once sung in a minstrel show. Further, we would have to return to life as it was prior to about 1820, as virtually everyone of European descent was a racist, at least through the 1960s, and these racists were overwhelmingly responsible for the explosion of technological progress in the 19th century—people of African ancestry having largely been deprived of educational and occupational opportunities, and not recognized for their accomplishments when they did overcome the racist obstacles.
    And while we’re at it, we need to stop speaking English, overwhelmingly the preferred language of the racists. May I suggest Yoruba instead? If you’re not sure where it’s spoken, Google it. If half the energy that’s been devoted to ventures like banning “Jingle Bells” went into eradicating racism in modern America, we’d be in clover.

  13. It seems to me to be a lost opportunity for educators to use this song , it’s lyrics, it’s composer and the times it was written to teach young people about possible racism in our society then and now. It also seems to me to be a long overreach to consider this song and it’s history as anything but innocuous.

    However, if the school district really wants to use its ‘silver bullets’, if I can use that term, use them to stop sanctioning baseball in our schools. If there was ever anything in our American society that was blatantly racist in its early history, it’s baseball. Sure, that was decades ago and baseball famously overcame it, but it doesn’t matter.,,..does it?

  14. The District Superintendent’s defense has put the school district on the national right wing media map.

    He has made “Jingle Bells” the district theme song. Every opposing team’s fans will be serenading Brighton sports teams with a loud rendition.

    The rumor is that SNL is already developing a skit. “ 6 year old removed from school in handcuffed for singing banned song.”

    He should have just said oops.

  15. Bells on bob tails is a horse term. Horses sometimes have their tails docked or shortened to keep them clean and also then easier to harness. The Amish still bob or dock a lot of their horses tails. Whoever “researched” this did a poor job. Other songs reference bobtail nags and you can see them in old Currier and Ives prints.

  16. Just a reader from NH, The fact that it (may have been played for the first time in public at a Minstrel Show) like Professor Hamill of Boston University said in her article. Not like Principal Tappon said (that it was played for the fist time in public at a Minstrel Show). How Very Very Stupid this is, Same on you.

  17. I’m becoming more horrified and saddened that the traditional repertoire I had used in my public school music classes are being brought into question. My aim was to teach melody and rhythm using a simple, fun song, but your in-depth analyzation of the words of an innocent kids’ song goes waaaay beyond what is necessary. During my teaching career (a Crane graduate) I worked at Salmon River CS, where a third of the students are Native American and I was tasked with teaching classes ranging from PreK to Grade 4 at their reservation school, while also teaching instrumental music, 4-6 on the main campus. Neither the Native students nor Native teachers had a problem with my repertoire of choice and even translated Jingle Bells for the Native speakers – “Swees da ey”.

    It appears that certain individuals who are bent on causing trouble are turning over rocks in an effort to discover inappropriate text, be it classic books or lyrics of songs. This Brighton school decision is a perfect example of what our curriculum is facing, as more and more traditional coursework is being either changed or dropped in favor of being politically correct and it is making my blood boil. I don’t care who is currently entering our country, legally or illegally, they should not have consideration when curriculum is decided in our public schools. Migrants and legal aliens can and have been absorbed into the system since before I was a student at Lyons CS, where families followed the fruit-harvesting season. We would see their children in our classes periodically, just long enough to enjoy a soccer game with them in gym class or realize that they were way behind us in reading and math. Our teachers were game, trying their best to catch these students up to standards, but they were usually with us, at most, a couple of weeks. The social service system fixed all that, but that system has become unwieldy as more conscientious hires(like Ms. Rioux) have sought to add even more to our ‘broken’ system, in an effort to justify their salaries.

    The reason I mentioned the Akwesasnes is that we all peacefully coexisted, because there was reciprocal respect among all the teachers, no matter their race or creed and no one was being paid to cause problems. Here’s proof, via a major media outlet that was shown nationally: https://www.cbc.ca/news/indigenous/kanesatake-christmas-activities-language-1.5840783

    You might say this has nothing to do with finding a problem with lyrics or underlying meaning of lyrics of a popular traditional Thanksgiving/Christmas (winter) song, but indeed it does. You are purposely trying to cause trouble where trouble does not exist. Most American-born blacks, with whom I have been associated through the years would agree that our government is routinely questioning what has been accepted, under the guise of political correctness. My children and their friends would agree that we have never had a race problem in central NY until people, like Allison Rioux, the assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction at Brighton Central Schools, were hired to discover indiscretions in curricula. I can see only one outcome for the J.B. conundrum – fire Rioux for purposely finding problems where none exist. She needs to spend more time on real curriculum problems rather than trying to make a name for herself by getting herself on national news over supposed problems with the meaning of a popular kids’ song. Furthermore, The Rochester Beacon is just trying to make a name for itself nationally, and should never have concerned itself with a topic that will only cause more racial upset. Yep, I’m blaming the media, which has been working toward racial unrest for scores of years, for the sake of selling their paper. I’m just an informed octogenarian who is sick and tired of the continuing fake news, pitting race against race, creed against creed and human against human and this piece of frivolity is just another example of journalism for the sake of creating disharmony.

    Allison Rioux should use her talents to shut down the crude and hateful language in music we hear every day on radio and TV. As usual, the innocent will suffer first, as people like Ms. Rioux practices her effects on us, the American public.

    • Sharon,

      I really apprciate your thoughtful, compassionate and reasonable comments. Your work with the indigenous peoples sounds amazing! Thank you for sharing.

      Blair Frodelius

  18. Ms. Smith, there are some problems with your argument, perhaps exemplified by “people, like Allison Rioux. . .were hired to discover indiscretions in curricula.” This sounds as if you’re accepting that “indiscretions” exist in “Jingle Bells”, and that your answer is, “Well, it was a long time ago.” That plays right into the hands of those who are raising truly nonsensical objections to everything. The correct answer is, “The are no ‘indiscretions’ in ‘Jingle Bells’. That I should not put bells on my horses and sing about them because the same lyrics were sung in a minstrel show is illogical and absurd.” Or take another example. I can’t tip my building super at Christmastime, because that was the time of the year when the house servants got a meal at the table in the dining room and were served by their white owners. Put that before these illogical, uneducated people who can’t think of anything productive to do.

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