Earlier this week we learned about the man who invented Christmas with a little novel he wrote called A Christmas Carol. This time we’re learning about the men and women who helped give it a distinct sound: Jews who wrote Christmas carols. It might seem like an odd pairing, but Jewish songwriters wrote about everything, so why not the biggest holiday of the year? Sure it’s a Christian day, but if you didn’t need to be in love to write a great love song, what’s stopping you?
Irving Berlin, a Russian Jew, was perhaps the greatest song writer who ever lived. He made a living out of writing songs, so to ignore popular holidays was just bad business. He wrote White Christmas; Bing Crosby’s version went on to be the best-selling single of all time. It also served to “de-Christ Christmas”, restyling the birth of Jesus into a holiday about snow that also evokes nostalgia for home and for childhood, concepts we can all relate to.
To further illustrate the point, the film maker uses another Jewish Christmas tradition, the Chinese restaurant, to bring the greatest hits alive. As the two largest non-Christian immigrant groups in America, they had an understanding of what it took to get through a holiday they didn’t really participate in, and they redefined it for each other.
It’s The Most Wonderful Time of The Year
The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)
Let It Snow
I’ll Be Home for Christmas
Rockin Around The Christmas Tree
Do You Hear What I Hear
Once Irving Berlin had broken the mould, many Jewish song writers made contributions to the Christmas cannon. And the thing about any song that makes its way into pop culture is that it’s kind of universal. These songs, departing from mangers and baby messiahs, created a new mythology, one of snowmen and red-nosed reindeer – a version of Christmas we could all share in. This documentary explores the hidden stories behind many of these oft-recorded, beloved songs and gives them a context I (and likely many of us) have never considered.
This sounds very interesting. And I had no idea Chinese restaurants were a Jewish tradition. Thanks!
Well, they’ve tended to be the only thing open on christmas day, as they are also not celebrating the holiday, so i suppose it was a natural pairing when they both found themselves in north america.
Cool info thanks Jay.
Sounds interesting! White Christmas is probably my favourite Christmas song (and movie), along with Silver bells, especially the Dean Martin rendition of Silver Bells.
The Chinese restaurant is a Jewish Christmas tradition, eh? That’s interesting… an d I hadn’t really thought much about the songs and their role in creating the popular idea of Christmas (Jesus replaced by Bing Crosby and wise men replaced by snowmen). Anyhoo, I think this one’s for me…
yeah, it’s kind of fun when your ideas get challenged
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It’s a strange pairing, but it’s not unexpected.
Very interesting post, but I wouldn’t call Irving Berlin the greatest song writer who ever lived….though he may have been the most prolific (he wrote about 1200 songs, including some never published). And here’s a bit of trivia for trivia buffs: he wrote a Christmas song titled CHRISTMAS-TIME SEEMS YEARS AND YEARS AWAY in 1909 (long before WHITE CHRISTMAS), but apparently it never caught on, and hasn’t been heard of since.