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A scene from "White Christmas," the movie based on the song written by Irving Berlin
A scene from "White Christmas," the movie based on the song written by Irving Berlin

Music

Schmeck the Halls: How Jewish songwriters created Christmas Add to ...

Oy, Christmas. It just wouldn't be the same without Jewish songwriters.

At the beginning of December, the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers released its annual survey of the 10 most-played Christmas songs. Jews wrote more than half of them: Sleigh Ride, White Christmas, The Christmas Song, Winter Wonderland, The Most Wonderful Time of the Year and I'll Be Home for Christmas. And that's just a few crumbs from the kugel.

Silver Bells, Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow! and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer were also yuletide gifts from the sons of Abraham. Johnny Marks, who put Rudolph in flight (twice: he also wrote Run Rudolph Run for Chuck Berry) and gave Burl Ives A Holly Jolly Christmas, wrote at least a dozen other Christmas songs. He was such a specialist in Christmas cheer, he called his publishing company St. Nicholas Music.

So what? Jewish composers and lyricists wrote many of the most successful popular songs of the 20th century. It stands to reason that some of their efforts would have gone into the business of keeping Christmas white, wintry and profitable.

But Jewish songwriters didn't just jump on the sleigh. They set it running in the first place, and helped create the nostalgic mythology needed to transform Christmas into a secular consumer festival.

The story of modern Christmas music - Jewish Christmas music - begins in 1942, when a Bing Crosby recording of Irving Berlin's White Christmas became the first Christmas tune to reach the hit parade. That feat, which the song repeated the following year and many years after, touched off a competitive rush of Christmas songwriting. The music industry suddenly realized holiday songs didn't have to wilt after one season, but could bloom again every year.

" White Christmas is the biggest pop tune of all time, the top-selling and most frequently recorded song: the hit of hits," writes Jody Rosen in his book, White Christmas. Rosen estimates that the song's record sales have topped 125 million, though it has probably logged several million more since his book was published in 2002.

In just one decade (1942 - 52), Rosen writes, Tin Pan Alley songwriters created "a new canon of holiday pop tunes that, seemingly overnight, had acquired cultural stature on par with Handel's Messiah, traditional Christmas hymns, and 19th-century secular carols like Jingle Bells and Deck the Halls."

Those previous exemplars came from people for whom Christmas was primarily a religious event. Nobody in medieval Europe, where carols arose as a popular form of devotional song, could have imagined the materialist binge that Christmas represents today. But the medieval carol, like Handel's Messiah, contained within it the seed for this monstrous secular plant. Both the oratorio and the vernacular carols opened a space for Christmas-related music to flourish outside the realm of ecclesiastical observance.

Some of those antique compositions persisted, with new words, into the middle of the 20th century, when a mass-market economy was ready for some kind of grand festival of consumption. Something that would dwarf ancient revels like the Roman Saturnalia, the winter-solstice carnival that the early Christians subverted by moving the anniversary of Christ's birth from the spring (when it is reckoned to have taken place) to the winter.

It wasn't enough just to tell people to buy; they had to have some warmer, more collective mythology, something related to the generosity supposedly ingrained in Christmas traditions. Never mind that the oldest tradition was all about the miracle of divine birth, in relation to which the gifts of the Magi stood as token offerings to a god. The mythology would be most inclusive if it played down the Nativity, focused on scenery borrowed from Charles Dickens, and translated those images to America - to the white snow, ruddy cheeks and sleigh bells of a rustic Christmas in New England.

The fact that much of that scenery and its sentimental trappings were painted and celebrated in song by urban Jews was not just a fluke of history. Only when Christmas could be defined by people who had nothing invested in Christmas as a religious occasion could the event become secular enough to include everybody with cash or credit card. Christmas as we know it in our malls and superstores needed outsiders - including Jewish songwriters - to make it what it is.

As Rosen points out, Tin Pan Alley's pre-eminence started to falter when rock 'n' n roll came in; Elvis Presley's 1957 recording of White Christmas, he argues, represents a "musical slingshot" aimed at Crosby and his generation's idea of popular music. But the tunes Berlin, Marks, Jule Styne, George Wyle and other Jewish songwriters wrote in the golden decade of the Christmas song have never been displaced. Each year, performers of all stylistic stripes turn out new recordings of those hardy perennials. They're still our most potent holiday propaganda.

It may be harder now to tap the schmaltzy sincerity of a tune such as White Christmas, though the international sing-along number Do They Know It's Christmas? comes close. A lot of new Christmas songs are satiric, as befits a time when many people's idea of prime yuletide entertainment is The Simpsons' annual Christmas episode.

In that spirit, the Globe commissioned Toronto songwriter David Wall to write a Christmas single with a bit more Yiddishkeit than Irving Berlin (whose father was a rabbi) would have dared let show. For Wall and other Jewish performers (including comedian Sarah Silverman, author and performer of Give the Jew Girl Toys), it's high time we added Christmas music to the long list of Jewish cultural achievements.

So the next time you hear about grandma getting run over by a reindeer, think for a moment about what she was doing out there in the snow. My guess is she was hurrying home to make a big plate of latkes.

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