In the annals of annual complaints, this one is probably the least substantial – the whining and groaning about Christmas music being played too early in stores and malls. Our lives are truly lacking in distress and discomfort if that's as bad as it gets.
Christmas isn't owned by the retail industry. Nor is it owned by Christian churches. That important illumination is the core of a fabulously informative and fun new performing-arts documentary. Dreaming of a Jewish Christmas (Thursday, CBC, 9 p.m.) is so good you want it to last longer than an hour. Made by the veteran and Oscar-nominated Larry Weinstein, it's a lovely hybrid of information and performance. It's that rare thing on CBC's main network these days – an arts program with heft and beauty.
The filmmaker starts with his own family background. Being Jewish, they approached the Christmas holiday differently. They went to a Chinese restaurant. And Weinstein uses that restaurant as a setting for an amiable and at times inspired celebration of familiar holiday music. That music, as he eventually realized, was mostly written by Jewish composers, in the period from the 1920s to the 50s.
Why it was Jewish composers who came to define everyone's feelings and sentiments about Christmas is the heart of the program. A variety of experts and performers contribute, including Jackie Mason, who has some lovely riffs on the sheer logic of the holiday being construed and shifted into what it is today by Jewish composers.
It all makes sense. The story is about immigration, assimilation and the evolution of American popular culture. (To the filmmaker's great credit, most of those seen and heard talking about popular music are Canadian, including Mark Breslin, musicologist Rob Bowman and music journalist Robert Harris of this parish.) Although the film "posits an essential irony" that so much Christian holiday music was the work of non-Christians, it is essentially about American ideals.
Such songs as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Have a Holly Jolly Christmas, Do You Hear What I Hear?, The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire) and White Christmas were created by Jewish composers reaching for secular celebrations of a mid-winter family celebration.
The sentimental association of the holiday with snow, the fireside and comfort came from those composers. There is fascinating background offered on the creation of White Christmas by Irving Berlin for the 1942 movie Holiday Inn, and how the U.S. entry into the Second World War established a connection between U.S. soldiers serving abroad and the song as the ideal of home.
Giving the doc its true heart and charm, though, is the use of the Chinese restaurant as a venue for performance. The waiters (including singer Roger Feng and actor Gaston Poon) break out into charming inventive interpretations of holiday songs, occasionally accompanied by gongs and dragon dances.
And then there are individual performances by Steven Page, Tom Wilson, klezmer artists The Lemon Bucket Orkestra, David Wall, Dione Taylor, Kevin Breit and Aviva Chernick. Each is a polished gem of interpretation.
Breslin jokingly says, "I must say the gentiles are very good with the prettiness of their holiday … our own holidays just don't cut it." There is also the celebrity lawyer Alan Dershowitz, in courtroom mode, almost shouting at the viewer with his thoughts about the desire for assimilation and acceptance. But you don't need his vociferous views to be convinced this is a very sweet, engaging and celebratory documentary that is also an invaluable history lesson.
It might just make curmudgeons complain less about the ubiquity of some of the holiday songs it honours.