Love Christmas Songs? Thank a Jewish Composer!
Written by Adela Skowronski on December 18, 2020
There are about 14 religious holidays and observances celebrated throughout the month of December, but none quite as heavily monetized, commercialized and prosperous as Christmas in the United States. An abundance of Christian culture, drive towards assimilation and Christmas’s massive commercial success over the decades are just some of the reasons why this holiday has morphed into one that, for some, surpasses even religious and cultural barriers.
With the popularity of Christmas in the U.S, it should come as no surprise that many songwriters have tried their hand at penning Christmas tunes. But did you know just how many of those songwriters were Jewish? And how many incredible classics they’ve written?
It turns out the number is quite, quite high.
Let’s take a look…..
Irving Berlin – White Christmas
Johnny Marks – Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree, A Holly Jolly Christmas
Robert Wells & Mel Tome – The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)
Edward Pola & George Wyle – It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year
Joan Javits & Philip Springer – Santa Baby
Jay Livingston (born Levison) & Ray Evans – Silver Bells
… And I just picked a few of the most popular songs. The actual list is much longer.
So why were Jewish immigrants (and Jewish-Americans) so prolific at writing Christmas tunes? There are a few different answers to this question.
First of all, the late 19th century & early 20th centuries were not kind to people of Jewish descent in Europe. Many Jewish folks found themselves emigrating to the United States, settling in the cheapest areas of New York and working wherever they could. The types of jobs offered to them? Pretty limited. At the time in America, Jews were barred entry into many fields (including the pursuit of higher education), so many went into fields without prerequisites: areas like cooking, manual labor… and show business.
Many musical folks soon found themselves working in the infamous “Tin Pan Alley” of New York City. This was a work-for-hire type of operation; publishers would sit hundreds of song writers in tiny offices, work them long hours for small pay and, on the off-chance someone wrote a hit, retain the right to all production of said song. Under this kind of pressure, a few composer “diamonds” were born who later became go-to creators for huge record labels. There were even some folks like Irving Berlin (born Israel by the way) who eventually found themselves in the mythical and ruthless world of Hollywood. Both places were massive media machines in the 20th century: Hollywood famous of course for producing movies, while Tin Pan Alley produced many of the greatest song hits of the early 1900s.
The time frame is also important to consider in this Christmas story. Many of the most popular Christmas songs of today arose during the period after WW1 and WW2: times when everyone in the media industry was trying to churn out positive art that channeled feelings of home & strengthened love for America. Jewish immigrants, among other immigrants in the industry, often felt an extra pressure to write this kind of American music, having a desire to assimilate themselves with the people around them. Sound familiar, my Polish listeners?
Finally, there is also the smaller (but fascinating) matter of Judaism and Christianity sharing many musical and religious customs. There is speculation by some musicologists that we even share similarities between old Church carols and Jewish hymns – “Carol of the 12 Numbers” and the Hebrew chant of “Echod Mi Yodea”, among other examples. Not to mention the Church hymns that took inspiration from Jewish folk songs (along with Irish, English, French… the list goes on). This theory has a little less support than the other two listed above, but maybe I’ll come back to this topic again someday.
Decades of immigration and the mixing of cultures in the United States have given birth to many incredible people, customs and traditions. Bringing these stories to life is more important now than ever – especially over the course of the holiday season. Whatever personal reasons these composers had for writing Christmas carols, we all should be thankful for their creations… and for the stories that we now attach to each song.
The holidays would definitely not be the same without them!
PS: Here’s a fun look at Irving Berlin’s classic “White Christmas”