An elementary school in upstate New York removed “Jingle Bells” from its roster of Christmas songs all over the holiday tune’s supposedly “questionable past.”
The backlash was swift, with critics calling the decision “liberalism run amok” and “cancel culture at its finest,” according to WHAM-TV. An informal Twitter poll by the outlet showed 95% of respondents disagreed with the move.
Matt Tappon, principal of Council Rock Primary School in Brighton, New York, told the Rochester Beacon he decided to scrub “Jingle Bells” from the school’s repertoire and instead replace it with a song that doesn’t have the “potential to be controversial or offensive.”
The principal and other school staffers confirmed to the local outlet the decision was inspired in part by a 2017 article written by Boston University Professor Kyna Hamill, whose research purportedly showed the iconic Christmas song was first publicly performed during a minstrel show in Boston in 1857 and allegedly featured performers donning blackface. That potential link was enough for Tappon to deem the song altogether problematic.
In her research, the song’s first public performance may have occurred in a minstrel show nearly 150 years ago, where white actors performed in blackface.
The district assistant superintendent for Brighton also told the Rochester Beacon that some suggest the use of collars on slaves with bells may be connected to the origin of the song and that even though they are not taking a stance of whether or not that is true, that line of thinking is not in agreement with “district beliefs.”
Some people in the community believe banning the song altogether goes too far.
“You hear Jingle Bells and it’s just the spirit of Christmas time,” says Mary Santiago from Rochester. “Christmas without Jingle Bells isn’t Christmas. I feel it’s ridiculous,” she said.
Ruth Ferguson, whose children were once students at Brighton, believes other schools should follow the same lead.
“It is taking away a Christmas tradition. That’s a tradition, like so many traditions, that we need to lose if it’s tied to slavery or racism. It’s just that simple,” Ferguson said.
While speaking with the Rochester Beacon, Hamill says she was surprised a school would ban the song and told the publication she believes it should still be sung and enjoyed by children.
On Tuesday, December 28, 2021, Superintendent Kevin McGowan responded:
“Several weeks ago, a resident of the community asked for more information regarding an item that he had noticed on the District’s website regarding work being done to review the curriculum with a diversity/equity lens. Specifically, he was curious about the District’s decision to use different songs in the elementary music curriculum based on work being done to be more culturally responsive. Several staff members provided feedback, explaining various reasons why the song “Jingle Bells” was no longer being used. This resident decided to write a piece on the subject and it was published last week by the Rochester Beacon. This article has been distributed by the author and picked up by a variety of media outlets.
First, we couldn’t be more proud of our staff and the work they continue to do to reflect on what they teach and how they teach in an ongoing effort to be more culturally responsive, thoughtful, and inclusive. Let me be very clear, their work has been and continues to be smart, thoughtful, and well-intentioned in every way. We stand behind their work without hesitation or question. They are doing work that they have been asked to do and they are doing it exceptionally well K-12 in every discipline.
Second, 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. I’m glad that our staff paused when learning of this, reflected, and decided to use different material to accomplish the same objective in class. It is also important to note that a song so closely related to a religious holiday that is not celebrated by everyone in our community was not likely a song that we would have wanted as part of the school curriculum in the first place. Our staff found that their simple objective could be accomplished by singing any one of many songs in class and therefore they chose to simply choose other songs.
Third, choosing songs other than “Jingle Bells” 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 wasn’t “liberalism gone amok” or “cancel culture at its finest” as some have suggested. Nobody has said you shouldn’t sing “Jingle Bells” or ever in any way suggested that to your children. I can assure you that this situation is not an attempt to push an agenda. We were not and are not even discussing the song and its origins, whatever they may be. This was very simply a thoughtful shift made by thoughtful staff members who thought they could accomplish their instructional objective using different material. The change in material is also not something being forced on children or propaganda being spread. The teachers have never taught about the song in any way when it was being used then or in the midst of deciding not to use it. In other words, suggestions that this situation is somehow being used as a way to indoctrinate children just doesn’t make sense either. It is as simple as this, we are using different songs, and we are not teaching about their history at this level. Nobody is discussing politics about the song or anything regarding its history with students. This is not a political situation, it was a simple, thoughtful curricular decision.
Finally, if there is ever a question as to whether or not something might be experienced differently by someone else, shouldn’t we be respectful of that? Is singing the song “Jingle Bells” so important that it outweighs the question about its past or its potential to not be inclusive in a variety of ways. If many, many songs are available to accomplish the same objective, then why wouldn’t we use those songs? I think our teachers answered that question very thoughtfully and I’m proud of their work.”