Dive back deep enough into almost any aspect of North American history and you’ll probably find something troubling. Behind every happy memory there’s usually a story of some person or people being subjugated for the pleasure of a dominant class.
That’s true even of Christmas carols, particularly “Jingle Bells,” as a Canadian professor has found the beloved holiday song to have a distinctly racist past.
Kyna Hamill is a Canadian professor teaching at Boston University. Back in September, Hamill published a research paper titled ““The story I must tell”: “Jingle Bells” in the Minstrel Repertoire.”
You can read the full text here, but for folks who will undoubtedly pull a “TLDR,” the paper basically ties the history of “Jingle Bells” to blackface performances and the satirization of African-American communities.
“‘Jingle Bells’ 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” writes Hamill.
The research paper spends quite a bit of time tracing the roots of blackface performances in the Boston-area during mid-1800s. “Jingle Bells” was first performed on September 15, 1857 at Ordway Hall in Boston.
Performer Johnny Pell was in full blackface during the inaugural production of “Jingle Bells,” with the song’s lyrics being thinly-veiled (at the time) jabs at Black people taking part in winter-time activities.
Apparently that was really funny to white people in 19th century America.
But, Hamill notes, “Jingle Bells” itself is no longer really racist anymore. No one really understands the racist undertones of the song’s lyrics and no one is hitting the stage in blackface to perform the holiday tune anymore.
It’s really just the origins of “Jingle Bells” that are steeped in racism.
Unfortunately, that hasn’t stopped conservative media outlets, and for the larger part, people in the United States from targeting Hamill’s findings and herself.
"It's been pretty stressful because I've had a lot of hate mail and harassment because of it. All for Jingle Bells” Hamill told CBC.
There’s even a Twitter hashtag, #KynaHamill, where angry Americans (and the rare, more even-minded Liberal individual) are venting about Hamill’s research.
Despite all the online backlash, however, Hamill isn’t backing down from the claims made in her paper.
"Everything I said is true,” Hamill told CBC. “I haven't really done anything wrong. If people don't want to be comfortable with the truth, then that's not really my problem."