New York school cites 19th century reason for banning 'Jingle Bells' over Christmas

Superintendent says decision not to sing 'Jingle Bells' during Christmas was not political

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An upstate New York public school chose not to include "Jingle Bells" in its repertoire of Christmas songs after linking the tune’s origins to 19th century minstrel shows, according to a local report.

Council Rock Primary School in Brighton replaced the Christmas classic with other songs that did not have "the potential to be controversial or offensive," the school’s principal Matt Tappon wrote in an email to the Rochester Beacon, which first reported the news on Dec. 23.

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The paper reported that Tappon and other staff confirmed in emails that the decision to stop singing the song was due, in part, to a 2017 article written by professor Kyna Hamill, director of Boston University’s Core Curriculum. 

In her article, Hamill researched the origins of "Jingle Bells," its composer, James L. Pierpont, and other songs about sleighs that appeared during the mid-1800s. She wrote that the first performance of "Jingle Bells" in public may have been in Boston in 1857 during a minstrel show, where White performers wore blackface.  

When the paper reached out to Hamill about the school citing her article as part of the reason why it banned the song, she wrote in an email that she was "actually quite shocked the school would remove the song from the repertoire. … I, in no way, recommended that it stopped being sung by children."

"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, adding that the song "should very much be sung and enjoyed, and perhaps discussed."

On Dec. 28, Brighton Central School District Superintendent Kevin McGowan addressed the decision in a letter posted onto the district’s website following the report in the Beacon.

McGowan wrote that "we couldn’t be more proud of our staff" in their ongoing effort "to be more culturally responsive, thoughtful and inclusive," adding that "this is not a political situation" and "is not an attempt to push an agenda."

"This wasn’t ‘liberalism gone amok’ or ‘cancel culture at its finest’ as some have suggested," McGowan wrote. "Nobody has said you shouldn’t sing ‘Jingle Bells’ or ever in any way suggested that to your children."

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McGowan said that while the school was not teaching or discussing the origins of the song with students, it did feel it mattered when deciding what material should be used in school.

"It may seem silly to some, but the fact that ‘Jingle Bells’ was first performed in minstrel shows where white actors performed in blackface does actually matter when it comes to questions of what we use as material in school," McGowan wrote.

He said that he felt that teachers handled the decision "very thoughtfully" and was proud of their work.