Sunday, December 25, 2016

Oh What Fun? The Troubling Origins of “Jingle Bells” and the Problem of Christmas Entertainment

Few, if any, Christmas songs are as widely known and capable of eliciting such instantaneous recognition as “Jingle Bells.” The short, simple song conjures up images of an old-fashioned holiday, feeding nostalgia for a Currier & Ives version of the past full of universal and uncomplicated Christmas cheer.

The reality, however, is far different. Dr. Kyna Hamill of Boston University has recently made some surprising discoveries regarding “Jingle Bells” that challenge our cozy assumptions about its nature and origins. Hamill spoke with me as part of a regular podcast series, the Theatre History Podcast, on In our conversation, which you can listen to here, she explains that what began as a matter of local interest eventually turned into a much deeper research project, one with surprising conclusions.

“Jingle Bells” was supposedly written in Medford, Massachusetts, by James Lord Pierpont – although the peripatetic songwriter also lived in a number of other communities around the country, many of which also claim to be the famous song’s birthplace. When Hamill, who is an active member of the Medford Historical Society, began her research, she was simply trying to determine the legitimacy of Medford’s claim. However, the more she learned about Pierpont, the more it became apparent that there was more to the story behind his most famous creation.

As Hamill explains in our interview, this is where her training as a theatre historian kicked in. She eventually determined that, while it may be impossible to determine exactly where “Jingle Bells” was written, it was possible to find one of the earliest instances of its being performed for an audience. In September of 1857, “The One Horse Open Sleigh” appeared on the playbill for the evening’s entertainment at Ordway Hall in Boston. It was part of a larger series of acts performed by “Ordway’s Aeolians” – a blackface minstrel troupe.

Hamill goes on to point out that the style of “Jingle Bells” bears many similarities to that of Stephen Foster, the songwriter whose tunes became an integral part of American culture, while also reflecting the racial divisions and injustices that plagued that culture. Indeed, the earliest known recording of “Jingle Bells” – a late-19th-century song labeled “Sleigh Ride Party” – contains short dialogues that hint at the song’s minstrel-show origins. Hamill thinks that the lack of any obvious racial dialect in the song’s lyrics probably helped to obscure those origins, shielding it from being recognized as a song associated with blackface and other offensive aspects of its original performance context.

James Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

In a broader sense, Hamill’s discoveries about the history of “Jingle Bells” point to the underlying truth about so many of our holiday traditions, particularly with regards to Christmas. Movies and songs that we’ve come to think of as exalted classics often have a much more complicated backstory. Witness the evolution of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol from an impassioned assault on the inequalities of Victorian England to something approximating a celebration of the values that we loosely (and often incorrectly) associate with that era. It’s also worth noting that Dickens’s tale is a rather effective ghost story, a genre that we now rarely associate with Christmas, but which used to be as closely intertwined with the holiday as it now is with Halloween. Think, for instance, of the framing device for Henry James’s terrifying The Turn of the Screw, which places it in the context of Christmas-time tales of terror.

More recently, we’ve seen the emergence of “classic” holiday films such as It’s a Wonderful Life. Inescapable from Thanksgiving until December 26, the film initially met with a reception that was mixed, at best. Pauline Kael attributed its “considerable – if bewildering – reputation” to its ubiquity on television decades after its original theatrical release. I’ve been able to witness a similar phenomenon in my own lifetime with the apparently unstoppable rise of Love Actually. When it came out in 2003, it was another Christmas movie that was successful at the box office but greeted with reviews that were mediocre at best. I distinctly recall seeing it in the movie theatre on my college campus, gritting my teeth as the narrative dragged me on an interminable slog through sentimentality and bromides about the magic of love and Christmas. However, it’s since been anointed as another Christmas classic, albeit a still contentious one. Apparently, it has stuck around in the collective consciousness long enough to achieve a similarly hallowed status, at least in some circles, to older entries in the genre. It’s now familiar enough that a show like Saturday Night Live can parody it and expect the vast majority of its audience to understand the reference.

It seems inevitable that, at the end of every narrative set during Christmas, the characters must learn some vital lesson about the spirit of the season. In a similar vein, I’d like to suggest that the complex history of a song like “Jingle Bells” or a film like It’s a Wonderful Life points to the contingent and ever-evolving nature of so many of our traditions, particularly those tied to holidays. Part of the appeal of Christmas is the notion – often implicit, but sometimes explicit – that our observances are tied to something timeless and unchanging. We have always sung about one-horse open sleighs, teared up at Scrooge’s miraculous conversion, and cheered George Bailey as he races down the snow-covered streets of Bedford Falls, or so we suppose.

There’s more at stake here than one might initially think. The origins of “Jingle Bells” may disturb us, but there’s obviously no reason to stop singing the song because of new revelations about its original context. At the same time, the idea of timeless, unchanging holiday traditions takes on a more sinister cast when it becomes a pretext for imposing a single interpretation of identity; the manufactured controversy over greeting people with “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” is largely pointless, but it stems from a perception that previously inviolable and unquestioned norms are being flouted by a secularized culture. Holiday traditions are constantly changing – it’s how we understand that process of change and recontextualization that determines the effect that it has on our culture.

Here is the full conversation Michael had with Dr. Kyna Hamill, from Howlround's Theatre History Podcast, Episode 16.

You may also want to head over to archive .org and check the 1898 recording of “Sleigh Ride Party” by the Edison Male Quartette.

– Michael Lueger teaches theatre classes at Northeastern University and Emerson College. He's written for HowlRound and WBUR's Cognoscentipage. He also tweets about theatre history at@theaterhistory.

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