The Jewish community is owed a debt of gratitude from anyone who celebrates Christmas. It’s no secret that many of the classic carols we’re all so fond of were written by Jewish men and women. Some of the standouts are “The Christmas Song” so often sung by choirs, “Winter Wonderland,” which has invoked many a dream by the fire, and oh by golly “Holly Jolly Christmas,” among many others.
They’re the songs we hum absent-mindedly when we do the dishes, brush our teeth, and fold laundry. This year “Holly Jolly Christmas” has been on a permanent loop in my head. It’s replaced every now and then but before I realize it, I’m back to “Holly Jolly Christmas.”
I dare say that many of the carols written by Jewish composers are better than the carols written by non-Jewish composers. I have a theory.
Jewish songwriters have the distance necessary to write about the beautiful side of the season. If you haven’t had to wait in line for an hour juggling presents while you shrivel up like a raisin in your winter coat, the hustle and bustle of the season might look appealing.
Who can deny the magic of twinkly lights during the darkest time of year? It looks magical, especially if you haven’t stood outside freezing on your porch attempting to unravel a string of lights in the dark while balancing on a wonky ladder. Then, when they’re finally perfectly placed around the porch, and they’re plugged in you discover half the lights are “cool” white (also known as bluish) and half are “warm” white (also known as yellowish). Who knew there were so many different whites?
There are few things less romantic than packing up all the decorations, sweeping up pine needles, and lugging everything back down to the basement once it’s all over. It’s like a mini-move every December.
There are no songs about that, yet. I’m waiting for one though. Songwriters from a Christmas tradition of one kind or another—Christian or secular—have written some miserable holiday songs.
That wasn’t true before electricity and shopping malls. There are lots of great carols written by Christians in the 1700s and 1800s—“Joy to the World,” “O Holy Night,” and “Silent Night,” to name but a few. After that though things get dodgy.
Two of the carols that make me grimace when they come on the radio—and they always do—are “Last Christmas” by Wham! and “Simply Having a Wonderful Christmas Time” by Paul McCartney.
“Last Christmas” is just so sappy it gives me a stomachache much like the ones I get when I drink too much white wine with too many brownies.
“Last Christmas I gave you my heart/But the very next day you gave it away…” That’s some speedy regifting and I think I know why.
The lonely misery of “Last Christmas” is reflected in a lot of holiday songs now.
Besides the depressing songs there’s also the just plain awful.
Few lyrics illustrate the joy of having a wonderful Christmas time better than, “Ding dong, ding dong, ding dong, ding/Oo-oo-oo-oo/Oo-oo-oo-oo-oo/Doo-doo, doo-doo, doo, doo.”
To be fair that’s the worst of it. Here’s the best, “The mood is right, the spirit’s up/We’re here tonight and that’s enough/ Simply having a wonderful Christmastime/Simply having a wonderful Christmastime.” Virtually Shakespearean.
It sounds like Paul McCartney wrote this one on a scotch-infused bar napkin 10 minutes before heading into the studio. We know you can do better Sir.
“Fairytale of New York” by the Pogues is super-depressing but not because it’s poorly written. The first verse hits me with a wallop every time I hear it.
It was Christmas Eve, babe
In the drunk tank
An old man said to me
“Won’t see another one”
And then he sang a song
“The Rare Old Mountain Dew”
I turned my face away
And dreamed about you
It’s a whole lot grittier than “Silver Bells,” which was written by a Jewish composer, and encompasses the most idealized version of Christmas, the one I’ve been chasing since I was a child but that always eludes me.
City sidewalks, busy sidewalks
Dressed in holiday style
In the air there’s a feeling of Christmas
Children laughing, people passing
Meeting smile after smile
And on every street corner you hear
Silver bells, silver bells…
With so many brilliant Jewish composers I wonder what kind of Hanukkah songs there are. Other than Adam Sandler’s “Chanukah Song,” I don’t know any. Maybe Jewish songwriters don’t bother because Hanukkah songs will be drowned out by the mainstream rotation of Christmas jewels like “Last Christmas.”
That’s likely part of it but I think my theory translates into Hebrew. When I walk by a menorah partially lit up in a window I imagine the potato latkes and jam-filled donuts laid out on the table and the people inside laughing and celebrating. I get a warm feeling. From my spot outside it’s so easy to romanticize the holiday.
But I’ve never experienced the stress of being one candle short on day eight. I’ve never dealt with the frustration of matches that break as I strike them.
And there’s all that cooking in oil and gift buying and prep just to get to the good stuff. It starts to feel familiar when I see it that way.
Holidays in general are a respite from the afflictions that follow us all. Perhaps there’s no better way to be transported somewhere magical than through music.
When I catch myself singing “Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer” I remember sitting cross-legged, knee to knee, in the hallways of Bala Avenue Public School as we sang morning carols during the days leading up to Christmas. This is when we saw a different side of our teachers as they stood up front dancing and being goofy.
And when I find myself humming “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” I’m extra grateful for what these songs evoke. The warmth of my childhood home, the windows steamed up, as my grandmother boiled the Christmas pudding for eight hours—the pot lid bouncing and clanging.
I can see my grandmother standing on the arm of the couch, tying our tree to a nail in the wall with cord she’d “hide” with tinsel.
I get to travel back to stringing porch lights with my grandfather, his toque askew in the dark, our only light streaming from the living room window. “You hold this,” he’d say, placing one end of the row of lights in my mittened hand.
Those songs take me to places I can’t reach easily without them. They take me to a place I didn’t know I wanted to go, until I’m there. It’s always the gifts you didn’t know you wanted that are best.