As a kid growing up in a Jewish home, I never celebrated Christmas with my family. We lit the Chanukah menorah, played dreydl, and helped my dad deck the halls with tacky decorations as he sang along to klezmer music. That was my holiday season, and it was fun. Yet I always had a yearning for Christmas. Not for any religious or spiritual reasons, I was just taken with the secular American holiday: the peppermint candies and gingerbread cookies, the sparkling lights, even the hustle and bustle of shopping at the mall.
On Christmas Eve, when most of my friends were awaiting a visit from Santa, my family would hop in the car and cruise the Chicago suburbs, gazing at the houses decorated with lights, wreaths, and giant inflatable reindeer. And while we drove, we listened to Christmas songs on the radio.
I loved those songs, and I am moved by Christmas music to this day. I think it’s because those Christmas songs are the only Great American Songbook songs that are still familiar to the majority of Americans. Even as pop music marches inexorably on in search of the “new,” the core repertoire of Christmas songs remains old, stable, and beloved. The resilience of these songs is also the source of their wonderful flexibility – we all know them well enough to appreciate when a musician does something new with one. As an improvising musician, it makes me glad that this widely shared musical idiom still exists, even if we only get to hear it for one month a year.
It turns out that I am not the only Jew who loves Christmas music. Bob Dylan, née Robert Zimmerman, recently released an album called Christmas in the Heart, which is just the latest surprise in a career full of them. While many listeners might expect the snarling, sarcastic Dylan of his earlier work, this album features an incredibly non-ironic and sincere Dylan croaking his way through most of the Christmas classics. The cornball arrangements of the songs frame Dylan’s time-ravaged voice in a way that captures both the gooey sentimentality of Christmas and the forlorn sense of longing that often accompanies the season. It’s a startling effect at first, but by the time I heard Dylan pounding earnestly through the lyrics of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” he had won me over. He’s like your drunken neighbor who starts caroling in the middle of a Christmas party. At first it’s embarrassing, until you find yourself singing along.
As an added bonus, Dylan is donating all his current and future royalties from sales of the album to Feeding America, guaranteeing that more than four million meals will be provided to over 1.4 million people in need in this country during this year’s holiday season.
The great irony of Christmas music is that Jews wrote so much of it. A quick run down:
White Christmas – Irving Berlin (Jewish, born Israel Baline)
Winter Wonderland – Felix Bernard (Jewish)
Let it Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow! – Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne (Both Jewish)
It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year – Composer George Wyle (Jewish)
I’ll Be Home for Christmas – Walter Kent and Buck Ram (Both Jewish)
Silver Bells – Jay Livingston and Ray Evans (Both Jewish)
The Christmas Song – Mel Torme and Robert Wells (Both Jewish)
Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree, and A Holly Jolly Christmas – all three songs by Johnny Marks (Jewish)
Why did these Jews write so many Christmas songs? The first reason was commercial – After Bing Crosby had a huge hit with Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas,” all of the music publishers wanted their writers to churn out comparable Christmas hits. However, there was probably a more personal reason as well. Notice that not a single one of the above listed songs is actually religious in theme. These composers had to find a way to relate to the celebration of Christmas, so they essentially invented the secularized American holiday. The songs are about snow, and chestnuts, and family, but not about Jesus.
Here’s one of my favorite versions of “Winter Wonderland,” sung by Shirley Horn, and featuring a Roy Hargrove flugelhorn solo. It’s from the lovely Jazz for Joy, an album put together by Verve Records back in 1996, when they had a large stable of young lions including Roy Hargrove, Nicholas Payton, Christian McBride, Mark Whitfield, and Stephen Scott. The album also features some great vocals by Betty Carter and Abbey Lincoln.
Dig the way they stretch the form of each A section in order to slow down the harmonic rhythm and the delivery of the lyrics, reminiscent of the gentle drift of falling snow.
Of course, if your taste in Christmas music tends toward the spiritual side, then you can’t do much better than Take 6. Seeing them perform live was one of the most inspiring musical experiences of my life. I don’t know about virgin births or everlasting lamp oil, but I know that what these guys can do with their voices is a miracle.
Have a Merry Christmas everyone. L’Chaim!