“The two holidays that celebrate the divinity of Christ—the divinity that’s the very heart of the Jewish rejection of Christianity—and what does Irving Berlin do? He de-Christs them both! Easter he turns into a fashion show and Christmas into a holiday about snow.” Philip Roth, in Operation Shylock, was referring to Berlin’s “Easter Parade” and, of course, “White Christmas.” But it’s not just Berlin: As Michael Feinstein recently reminded us in the New York Times, Jews wrote lots—most—of the great American Christmas songs. David Lehman, author of A Fine Romance: Jewish Songwriters, American Songs, from Nextbook Press, says that this Christmas phenomenon is just one example of his larger point: that the story of American popular music is massively a Jewish story. Tablet Magazine asked Lehman to list his 10 favorite Christmas songs written by Jews. His only regret? “I really wish that ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’ was by Jews,” he says. “That would definitely be in the top five.”
David Lehman’s Top 10 Christmas Songs Written by Jews
10. “The Christmas Waltz,” music and lyrics by Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne. “Listen to Sinatra’s version of this interestingly self-referential lyric.”
9. “Silver Bells,” music by Jay Livingston, lyrics by Ray Evans.
8. “Winter Wonderland,” music and lyrics by Felix Bernard. “Michael Feinstein was my source on this one. And I’m surprised! The lyrics involve an impromptu wedding ceremony performed by a Parson Brown. The most interesting lyrical moment is the rhyme of ‘snow man’ and ‘no, man.’ ”
7. “Santa Baby,” music and lyrics by Joan Ellen Javits and Philip Springer. “Very enjoyable song. The closest thing to a jazz song here. ‘Santa Baby, hurry down the chimney tonight.’ It adapts the conventions of Christmas songs to become a kind of love and seduction song. Eartha Kitt sings a swell version.”
6. “Sleigh Ride,” lyrics by Mitchell Parrish. “Sometimes people encounter it as a musical backdrop. On a personal note, I remember flying between the U.S. and England in the 1970s, and at Heathrow or Gatwick or JFK, you would always hear that. I had never liked it particularly, but because of the association it is very dear to me. Parrish—born Michael Hyman Pashelinsky in Lithuania—wrote the lyrics to one of the most famous of all jazz standards, Hoagy Carmichael’s ‘Stardust.’ ”
5. “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” music by Buck Ram, lyrics by Walter Kent. “Like ‘White Christmas’ and ‘Have Yourself,’ this song was popular during World War II, and it appeals to a certain nostalgia and homesickness, not only on the parts of the troops abroad, but the loved ones at home.”
4. “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm,” music and lyrics by Irving Berlin. “This is a great song that is sometimes overlooked when people think of great Christmas songs, in part because of the other major Berlin effort in this category, and in part because it is one of the few songs on this list that can be done come snow or shine, year in and year out.”
3. “Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow,” lyrics by Sammy Cahn, music by Julie Styne. “This is my own favorite of the ‘Jingle Bells’-type Christmas song. I love the way it is used as the exit music in Die Hard.”
2. “The Christmas Song” (“Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire”), music and lyrics by Mel Tormé and Bob Wells. “These first two picks are traditional Christmas songs—they mention the holiday explicitly, are full of heartfelt sentiment, and may jerk a few tears.”
1. “White Christmas,” music and lyrics by Irving Berlin. “Bing Crosby’s version is the best-selling single ever.”
This article was originally published on Dec. 24, 2009.
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