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5 December 2011
“Jingle Bells” as cultural artifact

Songs—some of them, at least—are durable things. Children have been dancing in a circle singing “Ring Around the Rosie” for centuries now. And while it is surpassingly unlikely that any of us have traveled this winter to our grandmother’s house in a one-horse open sleigh, chances are you’ve hummed “Jingle Bells” at least once.

Yes, we know, it’s important to keep the Christ in Christmas, remember the reason for the season, and so forth, none of which “Jingle Bells” helps with in the slightest. But here it is, merrily weaving its way through our holiday, a cultural good that’s probably here to stay. So while you’re wrapping and unwrapping, feasting and napping, share your thoughts with us. What does “Jingle Bells” make of the world?

1. What does “Jingle Bells” assume about the way the world is?

Jingle Bells assume a culture that is rural and has snow falls.  It assume nostalgic people even when the images are from actual experiences.

Deets Johnson

Jingle Bells assumes a common country past, of horses and sleighs. It assumes the North and somehow segues us all into “Over the River and Through the Woods.”

—Brian Howell

It assumes that winter weather is no longer a thing to be feared. We bundle up, wrap ourselves in warm, beautiful clothes, strap a horse up to a sleigh and slide through the woods, bells jingling as we sing along. It’s a long way from early immigrants dying in those long northern winters.

Also, it assumes that Grandma lives near us.

And it assumes time and space for play.


It assumes that we are “laughing all the way”.

2. What does “Jingle Bells” assume about the way the world should be?

The world seems Oh so peaceful. It assumes that Jack Frost’s nipping is pleasant, not the misery that I experience.

Deets Johnson

It helps make the northern, snowy Christmas the norm.

—Brian Howell

It assumes that everyone should have a horse and sleigh.

3. What does “Jingle Bells” make possible?

I think the song makes it possible for a wide variety of people with different experiences to sing in a nostalgic way together.

Deets Johnson

It does have the potential to bring people to a common experience of an imagined past, although I wonder how immigrants, or ethnic minorities in the country relate to the song.

—Brian Howell

It makes it possible for people to think they’re celebrating Christmas, even when they have no concept of the incarnation and the establishment of the Kingdom of God.

Arnold Sikkema

It’s playable by beginning pianists and violinists and thus allows a seasonal contribution by tiny musicians. Also, the lyrics in French are much more interesting than those in English. Google “vive le vent”.

—Sandy Eix

I think Jingle Bells makes it more possible for other secular Christmas-related cultural artifacts to be created and be acceptable. It’s kind of a gateway to further secularization of Christmas. Everyone knows Jingle Bells and it is one of the first and most common Christmas songs to be played on the radio and in stores and it makes no mention of the birth of Christ. As we listen to Jingle Bells, our minds switch over into “other Christmas” mode, causing us to think about shopping and presents and that thing we really want this year and forget all about the fact that the Most High God gave up everything to become a helpless child, born to die for the forgiveness of all who follow him.

—Chris Francis
4. What does “Jingle Bells” make impossible (or at least a lot more difficult)?

For me, listening to the radio between November 2 and December 25 is much more difficult because of this song and the constant play of it and a handful of others.

Deets Johnson

It makes the palm tree with Christmas lights look weird.  It becomes hard to imagine, or at least satirical, the warm-weather Christmas; Santa on the beach and all that.

—Brian Howell

A bunch of extremely loud elementary-school kids, singing this endlessly on the bus several years ago, made it impossible for me to concentrate on reading a book on the bus.

—Timothy Crouch

Its migration to Christmas has has deprived us of any identifiable Thanksgiving songs (which is what “Jingle Bells” originally was).

—Stuart Buck
5. What new culture is created in response?

A culture in which we can all share a “holiday season” without being specifically religious. I always hear the secular Jew Barbra Streisand singing this. “Up sot?” It helps to create that time of year when we share good wishes without reference to our religious differences.

Tim Etherington

Elementary school sing-a-longs. (See also Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.)