Have We Got Christmas Songs for You! A brief history (and long list)

Dec 15, 2014

I was working on a post about a cultural puzzle - why is it that over half of America's favorite Christmas songs were written by my people, the Jews?  Before I'd finished the first draft, NPR's Here & Now aired a segment on the topic, "A Goyische Christmas to You" (here's a link):

It delightfully covers an annual show by the singer/songwriter Steven Blier, and explains that many of the finest songwriters of Tin Pan Alley and Hollywood were Jewish and that they responded to America's brisk demand for Christmas songs. Let me speculate further. I'll start with the fact that the Jewish population of New York quadrupled between 1890 and 1920, as Jews fled pogroms in Russia and Eastern Europe. Once past Ellis Island, they found work where their skills were transferable  (for example, sewing in the garment district). As it happened, New York was the center of the American songwriting industry, it spread songs mainly through sheet music, and Jews of the Pale were unusually likely to be able to read and write music. Further, the Jewish Pale produced not only violinists like Heifetz and pianists like Horowitz but also a musical theater tradition. While the Tsar was banning Jewish theater in Russia, a refugee from Ukraine named Boris Tomaschefsky was making New York the world's capital of Yiddish-language theater (his grandson, by the way, is conductor Michael Tilson Thomas).

On top of that, songwriting was one of the rare professions without anti-Semitic barriers to entry. Because of such barriers, says Rabbi Kenneth Aaron Kanter in The Jews on Tin-Pan Alley, 1910-1940, these new immigrants often "went into trades and fields where Jews were already active. The music and entertainment industries are two major examples."  

Irving Berlin, whose songs include White Christmas and the earliest song on my list, Christmas Time Seems Years and Years Away. He was born Israel Isadore Beilin in 1888 in a shtetl in the Russian Empire and came to New York five years later

Rabbi Kanter makes other important points. He notes that by 1906,  Jews made up the majority of night-school students of English in New York, and that "these new immigrants saw the theater as a way to become Americanized. It was a school as well as an entertainment." Like other immigrants, they wanted to be Americanized. And they and their children were to become even more grateful to be citizens of the USA as it fought against anti-Semitic genocide across the ocean; the heyday of Christmas songs by Jewish writers was from the mid-1930s to the mid-1960s.

In turn, their Christmas songs influenced how America as a whole conceived of the holiday. Our modern concept of Christmas was by no means present from America's founding. The original Calvinists had banned Christmas, setting the precedent for Puritans and other American denominations (including Presbyterians, Methodists, and Baptists) - so Christmas was banned in colonial Massachusetts and not made a state holiday there until 1856. Only in 1870 did Christmas became a Federal holiday, and only in 1907 did Oklahoma relax its state ban. America's sense of Christmas was shaped in the 19th century by various Christian faiths but also by authors like Washington Irving (who first published when "New Year's Day was New York's one and only holiday of the winter" but in 1822 brought an idealized English Christmas to American readers), the Episcopalian scholar Clement Clarke Moore in 1823's "A Visit from St. Nicholas," Charles Dickens (whose "beliefs were Unitarian") in 1843's A Christmas Carol, and the German-born cartoonist Thomas Nast in illustrations from the 1860s that standardized America's image of Santa Claus. But as Kanter notes, wartime and postwar Tin-Pan Alley Christmas songs added something specifically American: they "made Christmas a kind of national celebration."

I would add that it wasn't until the late 1960s that American culture fixed on the idea that singers must write their own songs, which must express their personal experience. Nobody expected Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald, or Frank Sinatra to do more than sing superbly; their songs were written by professional songwriters. These pros were practicing a craft, not baring their souls as poets, divining truth as oracles, or channeling the voices of their group. (The shift to that ideal was catalyzed by Bob Dylan  - originally Robert Zimmerman, who studied Hebrew at Agudas Achim synagogue in Hibbing and was Bar Mitzvahed, he says, by a rabbi "from Brooklyn who had a white beard and wore a black hat and black clothes" - but Dylan represents a later chapter in the story of American-Jewish assimilation.) Before the Sixties, if you were a songwriter and someone needed a torch song, you wrote it even if you were happily monogamous; and if you observed Hanukah but someone needed a Christmas song, you wrote it as a matter of course. But you did so with feeling.

Whatever the explanation, let me add something I haven't seen elsewhere: a comprehensive list of songs. So far I've come across 31+1+1 Christmas songs of which at least one of the writers (words, music or both) was Jewish. My list includes 14 of the top 25 most-performed Christmas songs circa 2006. Here it is in alphabetical order, with the song's ranking in parentheses - and the unusual extra ones at the end. Have any additions? I'd love to hear about them! :


"And Suddenly It's Christmas" - Burton Lane and Ervin Drake, 1990

"Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire (The Christmas Song)" - music by Mel Torme, 1944, (#1.)

"Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" - by Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, 1963

"Christmas Time Seems Years and Years Away" - by Irving Berlin and Ted Snyder, published 1910

"Christmas Waltz" - by Sammy Cahn and Jules Styne, 1954 (on commission from Frank Sinatra)

"Do You Hear What I Hear?" - music by Gloria Shayne Baker (who was Jewish), and lyrics by Noel Regney, who wasn't; 1962 (#23)

"Everyone's a Child at Christmas" - Johnny Marks, 1956

"Getting Ready for Christmas Day" - Paul Simon, 2010

"Happy Christmas, Little Friend" - Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, 1952

“Happy Holidays” - Irving Berlin, 1942

"Holly Jolly Christmas" - Johnny Marks, 1962 (# 18)

"Home for the Holidays" - Robert Allen and Al Stillman, 1954

"I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day" - Johnny Marks, 1956 (text by Longfellow)

"I'll Be Home for Christmas" - Walter Kent and Buck Ram, 1943 (#12)

"It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year" - George Wyle, 1963 (#11)

"Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!" - Sammy Cahn and Jules Styne, 1945 (#6)

"Mistletoe" - Adam Messinger (who is Jewish) and Nasri Atweh, 2011

"Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" - Johnny Marks, 1958 (#14)

"Rudolph, the Red-nosed Reindeer" - Johnny Marks and Robert May, 1939 (#10)

"Run Rudolph Run" - Johnny Marks, 1954 (and Marvin Brodie)

"Santa Baby" - Joan Javits (niece of Jacob Javits) and Philip Springer, 1953 (#25)

"Silver Bells" - Jay Livingston and Ray Evans, 1950 (#13)

"Silver and Gold" -Johnny Marks, 1964

"Sleigh Ride" - the lyricist Mitchell Parrish, though not the composer Leroy Anderson, 1948 (#9)

"There's No Place Like Home for the Holidays" - lyricist Al Stillman, 1954 (#24)

"Underneath the Tree" - Greg Kurstin (who is Jewish) and Kelly Clarkson, 2013

"We Need a Little Christmas" - Jerry Herman, 1966

"When Santa Claus Gets Your Letter" - Johnny Marks, 1952

"White Christmas" - Irving Berlin, 1940 (#5)

"Winter Wonderland" - music by Felix Bernard, 1934 (#3)

"You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch" - Music by Albert Hague (who was Jewish) to words of Dr. Seuss (1966)


And here's an extra one, which is in a different category from the Great American Songbook: "Hark! the Herald Angels Sing." It comes not from Tin Pan Alley but from the Methodist church. William Cummings took words from Charles Wesley and retro-fitted them to music Felix Mendelssohn had once written for a patriotic ode praising Johannes Gutenberg, the inventor of printing. Why is it on my list? Because Mendelssohn was born Jewish; his grandfather Moses Mendelssohn was the most significant German-Jewish thinker of the 18th century. But Felix was converted to Lutheranism at age seven, and became devout. He is central to the story of Jewish assimilation in Germany, which was profoundly unlike the story of American-Jewish assimilation. (To get the details of why the Mendelssohns converted in 1816, along with many other Berlin Jews who were afraid of the post-Napoleonic government, I recommend the superb history How Jews Became Germans by Deborah Hertz.)


Of course, then there's THIS one, which is in a category all its own: