Lauren Markoe wrote this piece for the Religion News Service. PBS also had a program on the contribution of Jewish composers to favorite Christian music.
Christians don’t seem to mind that so many beloved Christmas songs were written by Jews, and Jews tend to reel off the list with pride.
“White Christmas”; “Let It Snow”; “Santa Baby”; “I’ll Be Home for Christmas”; “Silver Bells”; “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer”; “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire” (popular line from “The Christmas Song”).
Those not mentioned here could fill an album.
But why didn’t the Jews write any similarly iconic songs for their holiday that falls around Christmas time: Hanukkah, the Jewish Festival of Lights?
“I Have a Little Dreidl”? Great song … if you’re 4.
There are reasons that Jews are good at Christmas songs and why so many of these songs became so popular. And there are reasons why Jews didn’t write similarly catchy tunes for Hanukkah – or any other Jewish holiday.
In the first half of the 20th century, Jews flocked the music industry.
It was one business here they didn’t face overwhelming anti-Semitism, said Michael Feinstein, the Emmy Award-winning interpreter of American musical standards.
“White Christmas,” written by Jewish lyricist Irving Berlin, topped the charts in 1942 and launched popular Christmas music, encouraging many others – Jews and non-Jews – to write more odes to the holiday.
And although celebrating the birth of Christ was not something these Jewish songwriters would want to do, they could feel comfortable composing more secular Christmas singles.
“The Christmas songs that are popular are not about Jesus, but they’re about sleigh bells and Santa and the trappings of Christmas,” Feinstein said. “They’re not religious songs.”
In their music and lyrics, Jews captured Christmas not only as a wonderful, wintry time for family gatherings, but also as an American Holiday.
What they drew on, said Rabbi Kenneth Kanter, an expert on Jews and popular culture at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati, was their background as the children of European-born Jews, or as immigrants themselves, in the case of Russian-born Berlin and others.
Jewish songwriters’ own successful assimilation and gratitude to America pervades their mid-century Christmas and other songs, 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,” Kanter said.
The nonreligious nature of these Christmas songs may not sit well with pious Christians, said Feinstein, who is Jewish and who cut “Michael Feinstein Christmas,” among many other albums.
But they are now part of the fabric of our larger culture, he said, and “any singer who is a singer of the American song book will sing Christmas songs,” said Feinstein.
“We all sing them.”
Have a Merry Christmas/Hanukkah