I’ve always loved Christmas songs. However, growing up in an observant Jewish household, they were sort of forbidden. Like ham. Although, truth be told, I never found ham all that appealing.
The fact is, Christmas music is fun. It’s jingly and jangly and just uplifting enough to keep you from wanting to kill the driver in front of you while you’re stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic because… well… it’s Christmas.
Each year during the Christmas breaks of my childhood in central New Jersey, my parents would load our Chevy Suburban to the roof with my two younger brothers and me, our huge Bouvier de Flanders named Bonaparte, our tiny Yorkie named PeeWee, our cat, our luggage, a few of our friends and our skis and head merrily up the New York State Thruway to our weekend home.
That week, when Christmas Day rolled around, every single radio station — and pickings were slim, thanks to lousy reception in the Green Mountains — would run Christmas music non-stop from dawn until midnight.
Meanwhile, my father, the religious patriarch of our family, hoped to inculcate his young Jewish family with our culture. So, the radio would be turned off and the cassette tape library would be hauled out. For the next 24 hours, as my brothers and I played endless games of Pictionary in the living room, we were held hostage to a relentless klezmer marathon. Mind you, this was before klezmer was a thing.
It wasn’t until I got married that I learned from my husband that many of the most popular Christmas songs were written by Jews. I was verklempt. I consulted my favorite fact-checker, the internet, and was surprised to learn that he was right.
For starters, there’s “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire” by Mel Torme, whose real name was Melvin Howard. There’s ”Let it Snow” written by Sammy Cahn — born Cohen — along with Jule Styne, who is Jewish, too.
Let’s not forget “White Christmas,” written by Irving Berlin. Fun facts: Irving’s real name was Israel and his father was a cantor.
Then there’s “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” “A Holly, Jolly Christmas,” and “Silver and Gold” — a cross-cultural quadfecta all created by none other than Johnny Marks, the son of Louis and Sadie Marks of Westchester.
Other Christmas classics written by Jews include “Santa Baby,” “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year,“ and “Silver Bells”.
Who knew? All the Christmas songs I’ve loved and have been singing at the top of my lungs in my car every December…. are Jewish!
I started to wonder: Why did Christmas get all the good songs, and why did Hanukkah get, for lack of a better word, get bupkes? While there is no shortage of beloved Christmas melodies written by members of the tribe, these guys wrote none for their own holiday.
What does Hanukkah get? The ever-catchy “Maoz Tzur” — which, to be honest, I don’t even know what that means. And of course, there’s “I had a little dreidel…blah blah…..a lovely body with legs so short and thin blah blah….when it gets all tired, it drops and then I win”.
Is the best we can do for Hanukkah is to anthropomorphize a tiny spinny top? Well, that’s kind of pathetic. It seems that, in the true spirit of Christmas, the Jews gave away all of their best gifts.