The Secret True History Of 'Jingle Bells, Batman Smells'
I was browsing my Facebook feed recently, when I came across this Christmas diorama some beautiful bastard installed on their front lawn:
This is, of course, a reference to a parody of the song "Jingle Bells" that roughly 100 percent of you encountered at some point during your childhoods.
Jingle bells, Batman smells
Robin laid an egg
The Batmobile lost a wheel
And The Joker got away
If you grew up anywhere in the English-speaking world (and quite a few places outside it), you heard some version of this parody as a kid. I don't even remember when I heard it for the first time, but I've talked to people in their 40s and 50s who recall learning it when they were kids. This is a joke children have been telling for generations.
So, where the hell did it come from?
"Jingle Bells, Batman Smells" Goes Back To At Least The '60s
When I started researching this article, I came across another writer, Rob Weir. He'd started down the same path, waaay back in the foul, black days of 2006.
It was an age of privation. An age of sadness. An age of ... cellphones without Internet access.
Rob never came to a solid conclusion, but he did ask his readers to write down where and when they'd first heard "Jingle Bells, Batman Smells." Hundreds of people responded. I sent Rob an email and set to work sifting through all the comments to see if any patterns emerged.
One of the most common posts on the whole thread was (many) different readers who posted some version of, "This song was invented by the Batman cartoon, you dummies. I'm the smartest man alive." And then they'd post a link to this bit of '90s nostalgia:
But despite how smug all these guys were about their discovery, they were super-duper wrong. For one thing, "Jingle Bells, Batman Smells" actually showed up earlier on TV, in 1989 on the very first episode of The Simpsons. Bart sings it, because of course he does.
And that's not even the origin of the thing, because dozens and dozens of people in Rob's article posted about hearing "Jingle Bells, Batman Smells" as far back as the mid-1960s. Posters chimed in from Australia, the U.K., Canada, all across the U.S., and even Eastern Europe. This post by user SunnyD is the oldest reference I was able to find:
It Spread Across The Playgrounds Of The World Like A Virus
The Batman TV show started in January 1966 and ran for three seasons. It's why Adam West gets to do a voice on Family Guy every week.
And why your grandparents had to give your mom the "birds and the bees" speech
earlier than intended.
Several commenters had mentioned the original Batman show as a likely point of origin for "Jingle Bells, Batman Smells," but as far as I can tell the Batmanized version never made it onto the show. Rob Weir got back to me, and it turns out he'd had sort of a break in the case: this clipping from a copy of the Independent Press-Telegram from 1966.
Their letters to the editor section quotes two letters about the (then-new) Batman show. The first, by L. Wheeler of Long Beach, simply says:
At least one of the commenters claimed to have first heard it in California in the mid-'60s. L. Wheeler may have been the author of the parody -- or he or she might've just been repeating a popular '60s kid joke in California at the time. Either way, the evidence we've got suggests "Jingle Bells, Batman Smells" was inspired by the show's popularity, and may have gotten its start in California. The commenter from earlier, SunnyD, had a good suggestion for how it might've spread so widely:
After I turned in the first draft of this column, Rob managed to hunt down a copy of the Lawton Constitution from 1967 that provided some hard evidence for this theory: an article citing an American military brat overseas in Belgium singing an early version of the song. You'll notice Robin wasn't laying eggs yet.
So in 1966 California, some kids start saying "Batman Smells," and eventually one of them mashed it up with the words to "Jingle Bells." But this little jingle never spreads to the world without the Vietnam War. It's hard for people raised now to understand just how many more military families there were spread out in bases around the world. The U.S. military was roughly twice as large during the Vietnam era as it is now. Kids deployed to Europe, Southeast Asia, and all around the U.S. spread "Jingle Bells, Batman Smells" like that monkey-virus at the start of Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes. Every part of this theory makes sense, except the bit where a kid decided to use "Jingle Bells" as the basis for his vaguely scatological Batman parody. Why?
As it turns out, there's a deeper history of kids making dirty songs to the tune of "Jingle Bells" and this is the point where shit gets real racist, real fast.
"Jingle Bells, Batman Smells" Has A Dark Origin Story
The song we know as "Jingle Bells" was originally called "One Horse Open Sleigh," after a section of the lyrics we apparently care about a lot less than the words "Jingle Bells." The original song was written in 1859 and intended to herald Thanksgiving, not Christmas. At some point over the next century, kids in the South started making it "funny." The earliest one Rob found was from Mississippi around 1950:
Jingle bells, shotgun shells
Rabbits all the way
Applesauce and sauerkraut
And good old pork and beans
That's pretty innocent. And the commenters on Rob's article left many other early non-Batman variations. Oddly enough, most of these involved guns. The habit of making "funny" "Jingle Bells" parodies really seemed to take off during the Civil Rights movement.
Thanks to its ubiquitous Yuletide popularity, everyone knew the basic tune, so it was easy for ad hoc groups of angry racists to come up with charming little ditties like this one from Mississippi in 1961:
Jingle bells, shotgun shells
Granny had a gun
Pulled that trigger
And shot that in 1961
The beauty of "Jingle Bells" is that the rhyme scheme is simple enough to adapt on the fly. It's likely that countless variations shot back and forth between kids over the next turbulent decade. The practice was apparently common enough that it earned an official mention in a 1970 biography of Martin Luther King. According to the book, during the 1966 Meredith civil rights march (from Memphis, Tennessee, to Jackson, Mississippi) "young" and rowdy marchers started chanting this:
Jingle bells, shotgun shells
Freedom all the way
Oh what fun it is to blast
A trooper man away
Ice T would've been 8 in 1966. Just sayin'.
So, children of the 1960s would've been used to hearing several different (and politically charged) versions of "Jingle Bells" by the time Batman had his TV debut. What's most noteworthy about "Jingle Bells, Batman Smells" is that, once invented, it's persisted in the public consciousness right up to this very day. And at the end of an article filled with Vietnam, racism, and suggestions of murder, this actually leaves me pretty optimistic. No amount of hate is as catchy as Batman.
Robert Evans would like to thank Rob Weir and his wonderful blog for helping with this article.
Be sure to check out The 7 Stupidest Attempts To Reinvent Batman and 5 Reasons the '60s Batman TV Show Is Better Than You Think.
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