Snowflakes falling, reindeers prancing and chestnuts roasting all go into making the family traditions we call Christmas. But did you know that the popular songs that we all associate with this most colorful of Christian celebrations were largely composed by Jewish songwriters?
Traditional fixtures of the Yuletide atmosphere like Silent Night, White Christmas and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer are some of the best-known examples of songs written by Jews.
White Christmas was written in 1942 by Irving Berlin during World War II. The nostalgic images Berlin inspired – chestnuts roasting on an open fire, or the snow-covered sentiments “just like the ones we used to know” – came from the deep-seated yearnings for home that permeate every wandering Jewish soul.
Berlin’s White Christmas was released just before Christmas during the war in November 1942. The song gave a needed respite for lonely soldiers to dream about home and family as they fought through the chilly battlefront nights. Bing Crosby’s well-known rendition of the song remained a top single for more than a half-century.
“God gave Moses the Ten Commandments and then He gave Irving Berlin White Christmas,” wrote Philip Roth. “If supplanting Jesus Christ with snow can enable my people to cozy up to Christmas, then let it snow, let it snow, let it snow!” wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning author with his unique humorous twist.
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was written by Johnny Marks, who also served in World War II, during which he earned a Bronze Star and four Battle Stars as a Captain in the 26th Special Service Company.
We all love the story about Rudolph, a Christmas song about an introverted reindeer who became a social outcast because of his unusual nose. It’s the story of a Jewish wish-fulfillment fantasy. It’s the story of an outsider who just can’t seem to figure out his place in society, until one day his others begin to recognize his special gift. The nose they thought was so amusing is actually a way to guide the whole through the dark night. In a kind of biblically Jewish prophetic hope, it’s a funny looking nozzle that saves Christmas and earns them the love and respect of the Gentiles.
Gene Autry’s recording of Rudolph hit number one on the charts during Christmas of 1949. The song was the second best-selling record of all time until the 1980s.
As an aside, God Bless America was originally composed in 1918 by Irving Berlin for his World War I musical Yip Yip Yaphank. The song was revised and published on the eve of World War II to inspire the peaceful return home of American soldiers. Over time, the singalong tune became kind of a national anthem sung during baseball games. But when Berlin penned the nostalgic tune, it was never intended as such. Berlin, the son of a Russian cantor, wrote the song as an immigrant’s cry of hope, love and appreciation for his newly-adopted “home sweet home.”