As soon as Thanksgiving dinner is over, it seems, the onslaught of Christmas music begins, assaulting unsuspecting ears across America—at the grocery store, the pharmacy, and even the gas pump. Flipping on the radio invariably brings with it the all too familiar beginning notes of “Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer,” “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas,” or maybe even “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.” It’s a lot for a Jew to handle. And yet sometimes I find myself humming along.
And so every Christmas season I ask myself whether it’s okay for a Jew to love Christmas music.
Perhaps it’s a question that only a convert to Judaism would ask. Not that I have fuzzy memories of singing Silent Night with my parents—caroling was not our thing, opera and Beethoven were. But we did have this one vinyl of Christmas songs, and my favorite was Connie Francis’ plaintive rendition of The First Noël. I still love her voice and the melody, but the refrain “Born is the King of Israel” makes me uneasy. As a Jew, I take issue with that. Of course, many popular Christmas songs were written by Jews, and Jewish singers like Barbra Streisand have no problem recording Christmas albums, so perhaps the whole question is moot. But when my seasonal music-induced uneasiness still didn’t subside, I decided to ask around.
A fellow convert sees no problem whatsoever: “It’s beautiful, happy, feel-good music. Why wouldn’t you listen to it?” It turns out even many of my born-Jewish friends have warm memories of singing Christmas songs while growing up. In one New York friend’s family, it wasn’t just “okay for Jews to enjoy Christmas music, it was de rigueur.” On the first night of Hanukkah, after lighting the candles and opening presents, her family would gather around the piano and sing the only Jewish songs in The Fireside Book of Folk Songs: “Who Can Retell,” “Oh Hanukkah, Oh Hanukkah,” and “Rock of Ages.” But three songs were not enough, so they flipped to the Christmas carols and sang them all, in four-part harmony. She grew up thinking that all Jews sing Christmas carols.
A Jewish friend from Chicago sang carols in public school, joined choruses, and sang Handel’s “Messiah,” but now that he’s a bit older, he finds it more difficult to sing about Jesus. He still likes the music, but says he wouldn’t play it in his home. Perhaps the issue isn’t music appreciation, but active participation—should you sing a hymn praising someone or something you don’t believe in? A Jewish friend from Europe says, “Listening is one thing, singing the lyrics is another.” And what about buying a CD of Christmas music to play in your car, as opposed to simply hearing background music played in a store? The gradations of the issue only further perplexed me.
Perhaps my sensitivity is a distinctly European one. After all, I grew up in Germany, the motherland of Christmas. And while I have no problem showing my kids the beauty of a cathedral like Notre Dame, we wouldn’t attend mass there, no matter how fondly I remember the acoustics to be.
Then a Southern Baptist friend reminded me to distinguish between religious and secular Christmas music. She has a point. “Jingle Bells” doesn’t make me cringe. The lullaby quality of “Silent Night’s” “Sleep in heavenly peace” refrain might give me goose bumps, but its reference to the “son of God” makes me swallow hard.
For now, for me, the quandary remains, though I perceive my ambivalence about Christmas music as a sign of a faith well lived, and of behaviors and norms questioned every now and then. Should The First Noël ever play on the radio while I’m driving, preferably sung by Connie Francis, I might just turn up the volume. But I don’t plan on going out and buying the CD.
Annette Gendler is the author of Jumping Over Shadows, the true story of a German-Jewish love that overcame the burden of the Holocaust.