‘Jingle Bells’ removed from NY elementary school curriculum over ‘questionable past’

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The popular Christmas song “Jingle Bells” was removed from a New York elementary school’s music curriculum over its “questionable past.”

The decision to drop the song was first reported by the Rochester Beacon in New York, prompting the Brighton Central School District’s superintendent in a Dec. 28 letter to defend the move at Council Rock Primary School as an effort “to be more culturally responsive, thoughtful, and inclusive.”

“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,” Superintendent Kevin McGowan wrote.

The decision partially stems from an article about the song’s origins written by the director of Boston University’s Arts & Sciences Core Curriculum, professor Kyna Hamill, Council Rock principal Matt Tappon told the Rochester Beacon.

The professor wrote in a 2017 article that the song’s legacy is ”a prime example of a common misreading of much popular music from the nineteenth century in which its blackface and racist origins have been subtly and systematically removed from its history.”

Hamill said the song might have been first performed in 1857 in Boston by a minstrel performer.

A minstrel show, commonly performed in the early 19th and 20th centuries, “was founded on the comic enactment of racial stereotypes,” often involving white performers with their faces painted black, according to Britannica.

“This wasn’t ‘liberalism gone amok’ or ‘cancel culture at its finest’ as some have suggested,” McGowan said of the school no longer performing “Jingle Bells.”

When Hamill was notified about the elementary school’s decision, the professor was “shocked,” according to the Rochester Beacon.

“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 told the outlet.

“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.”

McClatchy News has reached out to Hamill for further comment.

Instead of “Jingle Bells,” other songs will be used, according to McGowan, who said in the letter that taking away the song “wasn’t a major policy initiative, a ‘banning’ of the song or some significant change to a concert repertoire done in response to a complaint.”

“This was very simply a thoughtful shift made by thoughtful staff members who thought they could accomplish their instructional objective using different material.”

When told of Hamill’s reaction to the school’s district’s decision, Brighton Central School District Assistant Superintendent Allison Rioux told the Rochester Beacon that “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,” she continued, “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.”

On the Brighton Central Schools Diversity and Equity page in regards to the kindergarten through second grade music curriculum, a response was offered for the question: “How can I teach music to my students in a way that is culturally responsive?”

“In researching ways to best answer my essential question, and best serve the needs of all my students, I started with revising the curriculum and content used with our students at Council Rock,” it said.

“There were songs that had been previously used/taught (by me as well!) that had a questionable past. Examples of these are ‘Canoe Song’, ‘Ching a Ring Chaw’, ‘Jingle Bells’, ‘Little Liza Jane’, ‘Cumberland Gap’, ‘Jim Along Josie’, ‘Jump JIm Joe’, ‘Shoe Fly’, ‘Sioux Lullabye’.

These songs were “replaced with more contemporary, and relevant content,” according to the school.

“This is not a political situation, it was a simple, thoughtful curricular decision,” McGowan’s letter said.

McClatchy news has reached out to McGowan and Tappon for further comment.