Jingle Bells – the tune that rolls off everybody’s tongue during Christmas time. It seems like there was never a time when this song wasn’t being played in the backdrop against red and white. The jingle is associated so naturally with the Christ’s holy birth that it has become synonymous with the festive Christmas spirit.

But James Lord Pierpont, the man who is believed to have written ‘Jingle Bells’, did not have such festive, fraternal ideas in mind when penning down the tune.

Unsuitable for Christmas

Jingle Bells, originally called “One Horse Open Sleigh” started out as a slightly risque song inappropriate for a universal audience, with verses hinting at picking up girls and high-speed crashes. There was no mention of Christmas or any other Christian celebration in the song. In fact, Pierpont’s lesser known lyrics advised its audience to “go at it while you’re young” and to “take the girls tonight.”

Pierpont the Confederate

Later in life, Lord Pierpont became a staunch supporter of the Confederacy, which aimed to protect the institution of slavery, even though his family protested strongly against it. He also wrote Confederate anthems during the Civil War, including “Strike for the South,” “We Conquer, or Die!” and “Our Battle Flag!”, all sung in favour of slavery.

James Pierpont

Jingle Bells and Blackface

Kyna Hamill unearthed the Christmas carol’s racist origins in an academic paper titled ‘The story I must tell”: Jingle Bells in the Minstrel Repertoire,’ where she revealed that the song, initially known as One Horse Open Sleigh, was first performed in blackface in a minstrel show in Boston in September 1857.

“Pierpont capitalized on minstrel music and entered upon a ‘safe’ ground for satirizing black participation in northern winter activities,” she wrote.

Blackface minstrel shows would take place in 19th century America, against the backdrop of a society that systematically oppressed and dehumanized black people. These shows were mocking portrayals that reinforced the idea that African-Americans were inferior in every way.

A blackface minstrel performance

Although Hamill’s unraveling of the carol’s origins met with fierce backlash, with people claiming she was ‘ruining Christmas for children’, it reveals a history that could change the way the world views its most beloved song whose “blackface and racist origins have been subtly and systematically removed from its history”.

Kyna Hamill, author of ‘The story I must tell”: “Jingle Bells” in the Minstrel Repertoire’
The former author has majored in Political Science and Media. She is a Film and History enthusiast who hopes to be a war reporter. Currently, she writes about socio-political issues. She can be reached at shayannaveed@thecorrespondent.pk


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