American Jews were prominent in the songwriting business of the 20th century, and even if they didn’t celebrate Christmas, they were happy to write for the popular Christmas market. Below are some of the most famous Christmas songs with Jewish parents.
Born Israel Baline in 1880 in western Siberia, Irving Berlin was the son of a poor Jewish cantor who immigrated with six of his eight children to the United States in 1893. After his father died in 1901, Berlin supported himself as a “song plugger” who would play music in various venues around New York City with the aim of increasing sales of sheet music. This experience gave him an ear for what music the public particularly appreciated and he soon started writing them himself.
The change of Berlin’s last name was an accident: When his first song was published, the printers credited him as Berlin rather than Baline. Berlin went on to write hundreds more songs, many of them popular even to this day, including some that are recognizably Jewish, like “Yiddisha Nightingale.”
According to Jody Rosen, author of White Christmas: The Story of an American Song, Berlin’s most famous Christmas song — and arguably the most popular Christmas song of all time — was originally written as a satire, intended for a musical revue performed poolside in sunny, 80°F Hollywood. But since Berlin was also contracted at the time to write a musical for Paramount (Holiday Inn), he ended up including it in the movie where it would be sung by Bing Crosby. The movie was under production in December, 1941 when the US was rocked by the Japanese assault on Pearl Harbor. Less than three weeks later, on the eve of Christmas, Bing Crosby sang the song on his radio show, perhaps to bolster the spirit of the nation. As Americans were enlisting for war, the sentimentality of the song landed not as farce, but as genuine emotion. It has been part of the Christmas landscape in the US ever since. Its wistful, melancholic tone and longing for a fairytale experience of the holiday continues to resonate.
“Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”
The story of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was originally written in 1939 by Robert L. May (who was Jewish) for the mega-retailer Montgomery Ward (shuttered in 2001). Montgomery Ward had been purchasing and distributing color books to children during the Christmas season every year and determined that creating their own coloring book would save the company money. In the first year Rudolph was published, Montgomery Ward distributed 2.4 million copies of the coloring book and it became in instant classic.
Johnny Marks (also Jewish), Robert May’s brother-in-law, turned it into a song in 1949. It was originally sung by Gene Autry and subsequently recorded by such 20th century American singing legends as Chuck Berry, Bing Crosby, Spike Jones and the City Slickers, Alvin and the Chipmunks, and the Temptations.
“Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” Johnny Marks
After the success of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” Johnny Marks went on to specialize in writing other Christmas songs including “A Holly Jolly Christmas” and “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” which was recorded by Brenda Lee in 1958. Lee’s original version has sold over 25 million copies around the world.
“Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow”
Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne
Lyricist Sammy Cahn (who also wrote “Love and Marriage”) and composer Jule Styne (“Gypsy,” “Funny Girl”) were both Jewish. Not unlike “White Christmas,” this song was allegedly written during a July, 1945 heatwave in California. However, it was not originally written as a Christmas song. When it was released in November of that year, the public automatically associated it with the Christmas repertoire and it has since often been included in Christmas albums. It has been covered by Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Jessica Simpson, and Michael Bublé.
Jay Livingston and Ray Evans
Composer Jay Livingston and lyricist Ray Evans, both Jewish, wrote “Silver Bells” in 1950 and it became an instant Christmas classic. It was originally titled “Tinkle Bells” until, as Ray Evans explains: “Jay went home and his first wife said, ‘Are you out of your mind? Do you know what the word tinkle is?'” Livingston and Evans worked together for many years and won the Academy Award for Best Original Song three times, including in 1956 for the song “Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be).”
“The Christmas Song” (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)
Continuing the theme of Christmas songs written in hot weather, Mel Tormé — born Melvin Howard Tormé to Russian Jewish immigrants in Chicago — reputedly wrote this Christmas classic in the heat of July in 1945. Tormé, a singer himself, recorded the song several times, but the definitive version belongs to the great jazz singer Nat King Cole. The song, whose melody was written by Tormé with lyrics by Robert Wells, became an instant hit. Cole’s 1961 recording was later included in the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry of songs that have shaped American history and culture.
Felix Bernard and Richard B. Smith
Another collaboration between a Jewish composer and a non-Jewish lyricist, “Winter Wonderland” was written in 1934 by pianist Felix Bernard and Richard Bernhard Smith. Like “Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow,” this tune isn’t a Christmas song at all — it’s the story of a wintertime romance. But its seasonal motifs made it a staple of American Christmas music. The song became a chart-topper for multiple recording artists, including Guy Lombardo, Johnny Mathis and Perry Como and it has been covered by acts as diverse as Ringo Starr and the British pop duo The Eurythmics.