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A Wildly Incomplete & Only Just Barely Beginning to Scratch the Surface Look at Winter Holiday Music

The History Behind Favorite Classics and New Songs to Add to Your Repertoire

As the holiday season kicks into high gear, you likely find yourself constantly surrounded by the familiar sounds of seasonal melodies. Whether you hear them blasting on the radio, piped through the stereo system of your local shopping mall, or sung by a troupe of revelrous carolers, these classics have come to define this time of year. But how well do you know the background of these fan favorites?

In this chapter of our “Wildly Incomplete” series, we decided to take a dive into winter holiday music to learn more about the history—sometimes pleasant, sometimes not so savory—of a few favorite festive tunes, as well as seek out some lesser-known alternatives that would make great additions to your repertoire.

Jingle Bells

Composed in 1857 by anti-abolitionist and Confederate sympathizer James Lord Pierpont, this holiday classic was originally called “One Horse Open Sleigh.” Like many trendy songs of the time, “Jingle Bells” was Pierpont’s attempt to capitalize on the popularity of stories about the horse-drawn sleigh as a means of transportation and status symbol in Northeastern cities like Boston and New York. However, he also used this seemingly lighthearted ditty to tap into another more insidious market: Minstrelsy and the use of blackface as a form of white entertainment in the antebellum United States. “Jingle Bells” was first introduced to the public by a prominent blackface performer in Boston, and it soon made the rounds through the minstrel show circuit across the Northeast. Indeed, its lyrics are in line with other drinking songs of the day: They depict a scene of well-dressed men riding around inebriated in sleighs, hitting on women, and partaking in quintessential “boys will be boys” debauchery. Yet the context in which “Jingle Bells” was written and performed shows that Pierpont intended to play on a common trope by pinning these activities on Black men and ridicule them by portraying them in a negative light. Although “Jingle Bells” has since been divorced from its problematic origins and the more misogynistic lyrics have been omitted over time, it is worth remembering that its disturbing history has largely been swept under the rug and that beneath the romanticized, merry façade lies a troubling past. We highly recommend reading this article for a comprehensive look at the racist origins of “Jingle Bells.”

Carol of the Bells

“Carol of the Bells” may have been catapulted to contemporary fame by the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, but Ukrainian composer Mykola Leontovich wrote this beloved classic (originally titled “Shchedryk”) on commission in 1914 when his country was undergoing a period of major political upheaval. He adapted both the lyrics and the song’s famous four-note motif directly from a “winter well-wishing song” he heard in a remote rural village. In pre-Christian Ukraine, the pagan New Year fell in April and this chant was a harbinger of springtime; the lyrics are sung by a swallow, who welcomes the new season by wishing families good fortune and bountiful harvests for the coming year. Once Ukraine adopted Christianity and the Julian calendar, the New Year moved to January; on Julian New Year’s Eve (January 13, known as Malanka), children went door-to-door and sang this song in exchange for holiday baked goods. After the Ukrainian National Chorus introduced the piece to European and American audiences during a 1919 tour, the arranger for the NBC Symphony Orchestra penned, published, and copyrighted English lyrics for the piece, renaming it “Carol of the Bells.” His Christianized lyrics include the words “Merry Merry Merry Merry Christmas” and entirely erase the original meaning from this native Ukrainian folk tune. If you're a choir director reading this, consider using the original “Shchedryk” as an opportunity to teach your singers Slavic diction by performing the Ukrainian lyrics!

The Nutcracker

Arguably the most famous ballet ever written, “The Nutcracker” pays the holiday bills for freelance musicians around the world year after year. Yet this perennial favorite remains stubbornly stuck in the 19th century, baldly flaunting a white, Eurocentric worldview of the winter holidays; the most widely performed version of the ballet revolves around a central arch of Christian Christmas traditions, celebrates rampant consumerism, and glorifies the military industrial complex. Moreover, several of the character dances are highly disrespectful towards multiple ethnic groups, from dancers wearing yellowface makeup during the “Chinese” dance, to the overtly sexualized belly-dancing of the “Arabian” dance—renowned choreographer George Balanchine once remarked that he conceived this movement as “something for the fathers [in the audience]”...*barf*. (One PROTESTRA organizer recalls a recent production in which young ballerinas were made to dress up as panda bears for the “Chinese” dance; in the “Arabian” dance, a group of pre-adolescent girls in “I Dream of Jeannie” costumes performed a rendition reminiscent of Salome’s “Dance of the Seven Veils.”) Although the entire ballet is not offensive at every moment, parts of “The Nutcracker'' are incredibly insensitive and no longer pass muster when viewed through a legitimately multicultural 21st century lens.

It’s high time that we as a musical community take a stand and step away from the thoughtless and harmful stereotypes that “The Nutcracker” portrays. Thankfully, several ballet companies have taken the initiative to update their choreography and make it accessible to contemporary viewers. Last year, for example, the Royal Ballet completely removed the aforementioned dances from its production; this season, it replaced the choreography from the “Arabian” dance to remove its “harem overtones” and signed on to the “Final Bow for Yellowface” campaign, which pledges to “[eliminate] outdated and offensive stereotypes of Asians on [the stage].” For a truly innovative take, look no further than “The Hip Hop Nutcracker,” now in its seventh season. Director and choreographer Jennifer Weber combines Tchaikovsky’s original score with hip hop dance and digital graffiti and visuals to translate this timeless story into a modern-day New York City fairy tale. If you are unsure of what steps you can take to reform your own production of “The Nutcracker,” we recommend starting simple: Ask for help! Rather than presenting the same old tired caricatures, consult and hire choreographers and dancers who represent the groups depicted on stage to create a version of the show that is truly diverse, inclusive, and authentic.

Here are two pieces you can feature on your next winter concert to celebrate diversity and move away from a one-size-fits-all holiday season:

S’vivon, Sov Sov Sov

This upbeat Chanukah tune was written by Russian-Israeli author and poet Levin Kipnis. He even wrote different lyrics depending on where the song is sung: When sung by a choir in Israel, the second verse’s lyrics are different from those sung anywhere else in the world! This is because the Hebrew letters on a dreidel (nun, gimel, hay, and shin) form an acronym that spells the phrase “Nes Gadol Haya Sham.” This translates to “a great miracle happened there,” referring to the story of Chanukah and the lamp oil that lasted eight nights when it should have only lasted for one. Because the story takes place in Israel, however, the lyrics change to “nes gadol haya po” (“a great miracle happened here”) when sung in Israel. The melody comes directly from Israeli folk music tradition and is sung worldwide every holiday season. We encourage choirs to sing it in both the original Hebrew and whichever language(s) you want to honor in your community. The video below offers lyrics in both English and Hebrew for singers and audiences to learn and recite together!

A Kwanzaa Song

This heartwarming song by Lovely Hoffman celebrates Kwanzaa, a relatively new holiday held every year from December 26 to January 1. In 1966, in the aftermath of the Watts Uprising in Los Angeles, Dr. Maulana Karenga, a professor of Africana Studies at California State University, searched for a way to unite the African-American community. The result was Kwanzaa, a pan-African alternative to Christmas that celebrates the diverse and rich history of the African-American diaspora. Kwanzaa combines aspects of several African “first fruit” (harvest) celebrations, such as those of the Ashanti and Zulu peoples, to form the foundation of this week-long holiday. This song pays tribute to the Seven Principles of Kwanzaa, each of which is honored on a given day of the week-long festival. This song is fun and educational, and could be easily orchestrated for an instrumental holiday concert. We would love to see this and other songs that honor Black History join the holiday concert repertoire with the help of members of the musical community dedicated to doing the work.


This blog post was written by PROTESTRA organizer Linnea Marchie; PROTESTRA Marketing Coordinator Erin Schwab; and PROTESTRA Co-founder, Director of Operations & Board Chair Ian Vlahović.


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