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A Very Jewish Christmas: Three Beloved Christmas Carols and Their Jewish Origins

12/29/2020 09:01:09 AM


D'var Torah, 12/25/20

One of my fondest high school memories was right before winter break each year when our choir would traverse the school hallways as our director carted an electric keyboard on wheels. Our goal was to spread holiday cheer to each and every classroom by singing Christmas carols. You could even call it the original version of a flashmob. And you might wonder how a bunch of suburban Jewish kids from Great Neck felt about singing Christmas carols -- let alone their parents. Truth be told this experience had little to do with the music itself. It was about the camaraderie, the silliness, and the joy. Besides, our choir director introduced us to the Hanukkah song “Ocho Kandelikas” to even out the playing field. He also created a clever arrangement of a medley of beloved holiday songs that ended with the basses leading a rousing rendition of “I Had A Little Dreidel.”

In addition to making this caroling tradition as ecumenical as possible, our teacher also reminded us that almost all of the Christmas carols we performed had their own special Jewish connection – they were written by Jewish composers. 

Tonight, I’m going to share some of these beloved Christmas songs, along with some commentary on what they mean for the American Jewish experience. But first, I would be remiss if I didn’t speak a little about this week’s Torah portion, Vayigash. On the surface, Vayigash has nothing to do with Christmas or Christmas carols. But in this portion, Joseph reveals himself to his brother, having attained success as the second most powerful man in Egypt, second only to Pharaoh. Despite his status as a foreigner, he paved his own upward path and made a name for himself.

Similarly, the composers of what we lovingly call the American songbook were either immigrants themselves or the children of immigrants. In order to make a living, one needed to write material that was appealing to the commercial music scene. In many cases, this meant writing Christmas songs.

Larry Weinstein, the creator of the documentary film, “Dreaming of a Jewish Christmas,” notes the following in an interview with the Times of Israel:

“To this day, these now classic Christmas songs capture the yearning to connect and find the comfort within the community… Jews also wrote Christmas songs out of necessity. Just as the banking or film industry had a heavy Jewish presence in the early 20th century due to exclusion from other fields, so too was songwriting seen as a profession that Jews could access.”

Tonight, we are going to explore the lives and works of three of these composers: Johnny Marks, Mel Torme, and Irving Berlin.

Johnny Marks, "Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer"

Local boy Johnny Marks grew up in nearby Mount Vernon, NY. He is credited with several contributions to the Christmas canon, including “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” “Holly, Jolly Christmas,” “Silver and Gold,” and, most beloved of all, “Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer.

The original story of Rudolph was written by Robert May in 1939. May created the character Rudolph to be included in a holiday coloring book while he was working as an advertising executive for the Montgomery Ward department store.

May describes three key elements that shaped Rudolph’s existence:  “I wondered about what kind of animal it should be. Christmas. Santa. Reindeer? Of course! It must be a reindeer – Barbara, my four-year old daughter, loved the deer down at the zoo. But what could a little reindeer teach children? Suppose he were an underdog – a loser, yet triumphant in the end. But what kind of underdog? Certainly, a reindeer’s dream would be to pull Santa’s sleigh. Outside, the fog swirled in from Lake Michigan, dimming the street lights. Light. Something to help Santa find his way on a night like this…Suddenly, I had it! A nose! A bright red nose that would shine through the fog like a flood light.”

The character paved the way for May to write the now classic poem that tells the story of Rudolph in verse. The poem’s publisher, Harry Elbaum, found a kindred spirit in dear old Rudolph:  “All my life I’ve been kidded about my own nose,” he recalled, “so Rudolph won my sympathy from the start.”

The musical version of Rudolph came nearly a decade later, when Johnny Marks married May’s sister Margaret. The song was slow to gain steam, and Marks struggled to find an artist who would record the song. Country singer Gene Autry finally agreed to include it as a secondary track on a Christmas album – side B, if you will, after his wife convinced him that the song was “enchanting.” We learn two lessons here: Never give up, and always listen to your wife!

With one Christmas hit under his belt, this nice Jewish boy founded his own music publishing company, St. Nicholas Music. Marks never set out to write Christmas music, but after Rudolph brought him such tremendous success, he stuck with this niche. His beloved setting of “Rudolph” went on to become the second highest grossing Christmas song of all time.

Mel Torme, “The Christmas Song”

      According to Mel Torme’s son, James, “The Christmas Song” was not originally intended to be a Christmas hit. Instead, it’s iconic opening phrase, “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire/Jack Frost nipping at your nose” were penned by Torme’s writing partner, Bob Wells, to help him cool down on a hot day. Wells said, “I thought that maybe if I could just write down a few lines of wintry verse, I could physiologically get an edge over this heat.”

Forty-five minutes later, Torme took his pen to paper and the lyrics of what we now know as “The Christmas Song” were finished.

Although Torme’s compositions as a whole are not centered around Christmas music in the way that Johnny Marks’ were, he did compose another Christmas song that was discovered by his son James as he was creating symphonic arrangements of his father’s musical legacy. As James recounted in a 2017 interview with WBUR, Boston Public Radio:

“We had magical Christmases as kids, my sister Daisy and I. Mr. Christmas, we used to call Dad - an accomplishment for a Jew.”

Irving Berlin, “White Christmas”

If Johnny Marks’ “Rudolph” was the second most popular Christmas song of all time, you can guess which song holds top billing: Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas.”

“White Christmas” continues a trend sparked by both Rudolph and “The Christmas Song”: there are no references to any religious rituals for Christmas; nothing about Jesus, angels, or the three wise men. One might argue that Berlin’s “White Christmas” secularizes Christmas even further: his Christmas imagery highlights beautiful snow and sending greeting cards. He describes a holiday that can joyfully be celebrated and appreciated by anyone, regardless of race or religion.

Born in Russia as Israel Baline to a father who served as their synagogue’s cantor, the composer adopted the name “Berlin” because that was how his last name was misspelled on the cover of the sheet music of his first published song.

Berlin married into a Catholic family and celebrated Christmas with his wife and four daughters when the girls were young. However, Christmas was always a sad day for the family: The tragedy of Berlin's otherwise happy marriage was the death of their only boy, Irving Berlin, Jr., on Christmas day, 1928. He was just three weeks old.

After their kids were grown, the family didn’t really celebrate Christmas. The festivities were more out of a desire to bring joy to their children rather than out of religious obligation.

In her memoir, Berlin’s daughter Mary Ellin writes, her father would tell the same story each year on Christmas day. He would explain that when he was a boy, he would sneak out of his Orthodox Jewish household on Christmas Eve. He would gawk at his neighbor’s Christmas tree and share in their festivities. He grew up with positive Christmas memories, despite not celebrating the holiday himself, and wistfully recounts these memories in his beloved “White Christmas.”

While Irving Berlin penned Christian holiday standards, his wife, Ellin McKay Berlin returned the favor by acquainting her children with their father’s Jewish heritage. She joined a Manhattan Reform Jewish temple and took the children to Passover seders and Yom Kippur services at this temple. She also informally instructed her children in the basics of Christianity and left a choice of religion, if any, up to them.

In this vein, Berlin’s “White Christmas” not only demonstrates American assimilation, but the growing number of interfaith households who struggle each year with the December dilemma. Perhaps “White Christmas” offers one plausible solution to this ongoing tension: Embrace the aspects of the holidays that bring joy and positivity to us all without focusing on their religious messages.

With so much Jewish influence on these beloved Christmas songs, it’s interesting to note that a new phenomenon has emerged over the past few years: the inclusion of Hanukkah music sung by both Jews and non-Jews alike on mainstream Christmas albums. Leslie Odom Jr. of Hamilton fame recorded a gorgeous version of “Maoz Tzur” on his latest Christmas album. And last year, Idina Menzel included “Ocho Kandelikas” on her holiday recording, describing it as a “Sexy Hanukkah Song.” Will this cross-cultural convergence continue during subsequent winter holiday seasons? Perhaps I’ll save that discussion for next year’s Christmas Shabbat!

For now, Shabbat Shalom and a Happy Merry Everything.


Thu, June 30 2022 1 Tammuz 5782