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A Jewish Christmas Soundtrack

The top 10 Christmas songs written by Jews, from ‘Silver Bells’ to ‘Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow’

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Score cover for the Irving Berlin musical White Christmas starring Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney, Danny Kaye, and Vera-Ellen, published by Irving Berlin Music Corporation. (Lebrecht Music & Arts/Corbis)

“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 Julie 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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jimmy37 says:

Your article makes the same annoying mistake that bothers the hell out of me. There are Christmas songs and winter/season songs. Winter songs celebrate winter – the cold, the snow, the activities. Christmas songs celebrate Christmas – the tree, the cheer, Jesus, manger, Magi, etc.

Just because winter songs are played during the Christmas season doesn’t make them Christmas songs. Songs like “Jingle Bells” get labeled a Christmas song because of the crossover to the activities of Santa Claus. “Jingle Bells” has nothing to do with Christmas or Santa Claus. Just read the lyrics of “Let It Snow”, “Sleigh Ride”, “Winter Wonderland”, etc. Not a Christmas in sight.

Plutogirl says:

The tree is not a religious symbol. It is a pagan symbol used at the Winter Solstice for thousands of years. Evergreens represent the continuation of life through the winter. The cheer also originates with the intense joy felt at the return of the Sun at the Solstice.

Julie Minerbo says:

Very interesting! My Dad passed on this link to me and I was very surprised that Jews wrote so many of the Christmas songs! As a Jew, now I don’t feel as guilty about enjoying singing them and celebrating the holiday season. Happy Holidays! Julie

RParish says:

It shouldn’t be such a surprise that Jews wrote some of the catchiest and best xmas songs. Many of these tunes and others, like “We Need a Little Xmas,” came from musicals and movies. We have been found in great numbers as songwriters and lyricists. Johnny Marks made his living writing in the genr. To quote Gershwin, “Nice work if you can get it.”

Avrohom Wachs says:

Will you be publishing a list of Chanuka songs written by non-Jews?

Avrohom Wachs,

Surprisingly, there is one. It’s not great, but it was written at the behest of Tablet Mgazine.

You might also want to check out this Christmas song from Bethlehem:

While his name is pronounced Julie, it is really spelled Jule Styne aka Stein, his first name is Julius.

Lynne T says:

Avrohom and Adina:

As it happens, Maoz Tzur (forgive my spelling), owes its origins to a 14th or 15th century German hymn.

    Not its origins per se, only its best-known tune. There’s a less well-known melody recorded by Benedetto Marcello in “Estro Poetico-Armonico” in 1725, which he states was sung by the Ashkenazim of Venice. Same text, but a different (and, in my opinion, far more attractive) tune.

Can we get a list of good Hannukah songs?
Right now, all I can think of is the detestable Adam Sandler one, Matisyahu’s Miracle, some litergical ones. And the one that Tablet Magazine, Orrin Hatch and Madeline Stone did, Eight Days of Hanukkah.

I blame Jews for making this Jew sick of being assaulted every December with their schmaltz. When January comes I am so sick of it and already think of the coming renewed assault on Jewish ears before Easter. Both holidays used to be celebrated instead of with music with the traditional pogroms on Jews instigated in churches. So why did those Jews do such a nasty composing to my ears?

    fred capio says:

    it is amazing how quickly many Jews have forgotten 1700 years of Christian violent intolerance and anti-Semitism

You overlooked Johnny Marks, who wrote several popular Christmas songs. But no list can hope to be exhaustive!

Habbgun says:

Ya know….the goyim can’t even get Christmas right……

Habbgun says:

Ya know….the goyim can’t even get Christmas right……

sandra penrein says:

“Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire” by Mel Torme “Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer” by Johnny Marks are also written by M.O.T’s. Garrison Keiller wrote a column in theBaltimore Sun complaining about Jewish songwriters “meddling” in their holidays.

Martin Cohen says:

Re: sandra penrein – Poor Garrison Keiller – If the christians could write good xmas songs, the Jews wouldn’t have to.

artcohn says:

The composer of the great Christmas favorite, “Oh Holy Night”, was not an American. But Adolphe Adam was Jewish!


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A Jewish Christmas Soundtrack

The top 10 Christmas songs written by Jews, from ‘Silver Bells’ to ‘Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow’

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