When a Boston University professor set out to trace the origins of “Jingle Bells,” she had no idea that she would discover the song’s racist origins – or cause an internet controversy.
Theater professor Kyna Hamill set out to trace if Medford, Massachusetts, or Savannah, Georgia, was the Christmas carol’s birthplace, as both used as their claim to fame. Instead, she learned the tune was originally performed in blackface in a minstrel show as “One Horse Open Sleigh” at Ordway Hall on Washington Street in Boston.
“In 1857 when it was performed in blackface — that is white men blackening up with burnt cork on their faces — it would have been racist,” she told The Boston Herald via email. “This performance tradition is historical fact and continued in the U.S. until the 1930s as an amateur entertainment.”
However, Hamill denies “Jingle Bells” itself being racist and doesn’t discourage people from singing it — and any articles that say differently are simply trying to “rile people up at this time of year.”
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“I never said it was racist now,” said the professor. “Nowhere did I say that. My point was that because it is now included in the Christmas catalog of songs — attention is only given to it during the Christmas season — it has eluded rigorous study.”
She continued, “I did not write the article to make people upset. At no point have I ever made a claim on what people should or should not sing at Christmas.”