Jewish Christmas Songs

white christmas7If you want to hear the real sounds of Christmas, you can forget the sound of footsteps trudging through the snow, or of crackling logs in the fireplace, or of children laughing, or of bells ringing at those red kettles that the Salvation Army puts out each year.

No. The true sounds of the festive season of Christmas are these: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!, The Christmas Song (“Chestnuts roasting on an open fire” – that one), Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree, Silver Bells, Santa Baby, I’ll Be Home For Christmas, and the blockbuster of all blockbusters of Christmas classics, White Christmas – by all standards and statistics, not only the most successful Yuletide song of all time, but also one of the most successful songs of all time. PERIOD.

What do all of those tunes, all originating more or less from the Tin Pan Alley era of American songwriting, plus many more like them, have in common? They were all penned by Jewish songwriters.

In the first half of the twentieth century, Jews flocked to the music industry. It was one business where they did not face overwhelming anti-Semitism and although celebrating the birth of Jesus was not something these Jewish songwriters would do, they, nevertheless, could feel comfortable composing more secular Christmas songs.

Let me be very clear here. These popular Christmas songs are not about Jesus and his birth. Rather, they are about sleigh bells and Santa Claus and the trappings of Christmas. Some are about winter and snow. They are not religious songs in any sense of the term and I, for one, am not offended by the non-religious nature of these Christmas songs. I know that Christians who are far more pious than I will not agree with that statement. Nevertheless, these songs are now part of the fabric of our larger culture, and the modern Christmas celebration is far richer because of them.

In their music and lyrics, Jews captured Christmas, not only as a wonderful, wintry time for family gatherings, but also as a distinctive American holiday. What they drew on was their background as the children of European-born Jews, or as immigrants themselves, as in the case of Israel Isidore Baline (Irving Berlin), a Belarusian-Jewish immigrant to New York City.

Jewish songwriters’ own successful assimilation and gratitude to America pervaded their mid-century Christmas songs and other ditties, and appealed to a country that wanted to feel brave and united as it fought World War II.

These songs made Christmas a kind of national celebration, almost a patriotic celebration. Actually, about half or more of the top twenty-five most popular Christmas songs in any given year are from a highly varied collection of songs written in the middle of the last century in part or in full by composers of Jewish origin, from Irving Berlin (White Christmas, Happy Holiday) to Mel Tormé and Robert Wells (The Christmas Song), Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne (Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow), Johnny Marks (Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer, Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree, Have A Holly Jolly Christmas), Joan Javits, Philip Springer and Tony Springer (Santa Baby), Felix Bernard (music only: Winter Wonderland), Walter Kent and Buck Ram (I’ll Be Home For Christmas) Eddie Pola and George Wyle (It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year), Gloria Shayne Baker (music only: Do You Hear What I Hear?), Robert Allen and Al Stillman (Home For The Holidays), Jay Livingstone and Ray Evans (Silver Bells), and Mitchell Parish (lyrics only: Sleigh Ride).

By the mid-twentieth century, European Jewish émigrés were thoroughly assimilated into the great American cultural melting pot and Jewish songwriters had become a crucial part of the American music establishment, penning songs from patriotic anthems (God Bless America by the prolific Irving Berlin) to hit Broadway musicals (Guys and Dolls by Frank Loesser, West Side Story by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, and Damn Yankees by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross, to name just a few).

But it remains intriguing nevertheless that Jewish writers were so remarkably adept at identifying, reflecting and in some ways helping to crystallize the modern essence of a celebration in which they did not even strictly partake – albeit a celebration that was fast becoming increasingly secular and commercialized.

To appreciate the unique story of why Jewish writers have given the season such a cheerful tone is in many ways to tell the story of Irving Berlin’s White Christmas, so here is that story.

The story begins (I suspect it is apocryphal) with Berlin racing into his office in 1940 and saying to his secretary: “Miss Smith, grab your pen and take down this song. I just wrote the best song I’ve ever written – hell, I just wrote the best song that anybody’s ever written.” The song, of course, was White Christmas. Berlin later dropped the original verse that poked fun at a well-off Californian who, amid orange and palm trees, longs for traditional Christmas “up north.” but kept the now-famous choruses that begin: “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas/Just like the ones I used to know.”

Actually, the song that would become White Christmas was conceived by Berlin on the set of the film Top Hat in 1935. Berlin hummed the melody to Fred Astaire and the film’s director Mark Sandrich as a song possibility for a future Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers vehicle. Astaire loved the tune, but Sandrich passed on it. Originally released in 1942, and sung by Bing Crosby (all of these Jewish-penned hits were sung in the first instance by good Christian boys, such as Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, and Andy Williams), White Christmas topped the charts in 1942 and launched popular Christmas music, encouraging many others – Jews and non-Jews alike – to write more odes to the holiday.

And yet, like most of the songs discussed here, White Christmas defies obvious assumptions as to how and why it came to be.  Berlin actually wrote the song for a 1942 film entitled Holiday Inn, a musical starring Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire, based on the idea of an inn that opened only on public holidays, hence the title. Berlin’s assignment for Holiday Inn was to write a song about each of the major holidays of the year. He found that writing a song about Christmas was the most challenging, due to his Jewish upbringing. In addition to White Christmas, Berlin also wrote a Christmas Eve song (Come To Holiday Inn), two New Year’s Eve songs (Happy Holiday, and Let’s Start The New Year Right), a Washington’s Birthday song (I Can’t Tell A Lie), a Lincoln’s Birthday song (Abraham), an Easter Song (Easter Parade), two Fourth of July Songs (Let’s Say It With Firecrackers, and Song Of Freedom), a Thanksgiving song (I’ve Got Plenty To Be Thankful For) and a Valentine’s Day song, (Be Careful, It’s My Heart). It was the latter song that Berlin predicted would be the breakout song of the film. He did not expect that the Christmas song would have such an impact. But what an impact it had! The immense success of White Christmas became something many songwriters sought to emulate.

For all of its snowy imagery, White Christmas was actually the product of a writing retreat to sunny California. Here lay the song’s essence – a desire for something familiar and wholesome in an unfamiliar environment, and Berlin’s Jewish roots were crucial in this regard. Within his Jewish culture – as in many cultures – there was always a mixture of joy and sadness; good cheer and melancholy. White Christmas is actually a rather poignant song of longing; it is not a jolly song in terms of Christmas songs or Christmas carols. It is a song for anyone of any creed who is away from home at a particular time of year or is away from family at this time of year, and it is about that yearning – a longing that everyone on this planet can relate to, regardless of one’s culture or religion.

Released at a time when many tens of thousands of American GI’s were overseas fighting in World War II, most of whom yearning to be home “where the treetops glisten and children listen” and “to hear sleigh bells in the snow,” certainly contributed to making White Christmas an unprecedented sensation. Berlin could relate to the holiday from its secular point of view, while respectfully staying away from the religious side. Above all, White Christmas is a song written from the heart, and it is about a celebration the appeal of which – like the full pageant of American holidays from Thanksgiving to the Fourth of July – Berlin was instinctively brilliant at expressing. Berlin was a genius at tapping into that nostalgia that we all have.

Take away its religious significance and Christmas becomes a rather strange multi-ritual, omni-cultural mixture, stitching together as it does bits of German (trees), Dutch (Santa Claus) and Italian/German/English (carols) traditions, so it was perfectly reasonable for American writers who happened to be of the Jewish faith to become involved in its celebration, if only in a secular way.

Whether the song is White Christmas, or Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer or The Christmas Song or Sleigh Ride or Winter Wonderland, or the myriad of other secular Christmas songs written by Jewish composers, each song is unique. While distinctive, however, all these songs share a set of defining characteristics: all are emotionally warm, longingly nostalgic, and utterly secular. And above all, they are not exclusionary in any way. The greatest Jewish Christmas songs are remarkably consistent in their universality, in their inclusiveness, and in their lack of hypocrisy – all for the simple reason that the people who wrote them never pretended to be something they were not.

The genius of these great Jewish-American songwriters is they all managed to successfully capture the love that the Christmas season can elicit in each one of us, and they achieved this by viewing the holiday that is at the very heart of Christianity through the prism of their unique Jewish sensibility. Jewish Christmas songs? Why not? After all, Jesus was a Jew.

So Ho! Ho! Ho! May your days be merry and bright and may all your Christmases be white.

MERRY CHRISTMAS!

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