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The Jewish roots of famous Christmas carols

And the singers who helped make those carols classics

From classical music to jazz standards to show tunes to pop songs, the American musical canon owes much to Americans of Jewish descent. Whether you prefer the symphonies of Leonard Bernstein or his West Side Story highlights; the compositions of George Gershwin (“Porgy and Bess,” “American in Paris,” “I Got Rhythm,”…the list goes on and on); the genre-bending works of Philip Glass; the ’70s hits of Carly Simon, Neil Diamond, and Barry Manilow; or chart-toppers by songwriters as varied as Paul Simon, Billy Joel, Herb Alpert, Randy Newman, Adam Levine, and P!nk, you have likely heard — and perhaps know a few — of the songs written by Americans of Jewish descent.

While I’ve long known Irving Berlin wrote the smash 1942 hit, “White Christmas,” which was originally performed by Bing Crosby in the holiday movie Holiday Inn (after which the hotel chain was named) and the success of which led to the movie White Christmas, the irony of a person of Jewish descent writing Christmas carols never occurred to me until I stumbled upon “The History Behind Jewish American Composers Who Wrote Christmas Classics” by Atlanta public radio station WABE producer Summer Evans.

According to Evans, other popular Christmas carols written by Americans of Jewish heritage include “Silver Bells,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “A Holly Jolly Christmas,” and “Rocking Around the Christmas Tree,” all of which were originally performed by Americans from a wide variety of backgrounds.

Bing Crosby, a crooner and movie star originally from Tacoma, Washington, helped make “White Christmas” and, later (along with Bob Hope and each of their respective duet partners, Carol Richards and Marilyn Maxwell), “Silver Bells” remarkably famous. In 1949, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” was recorded by none other than The Singing Cowboy, Gene Autry from Tioga, Texas, and “A Holly Jolly Christmas” became a hit thanks in part to the distinctive bright tones of Burl Ives, a singer, banjoist, and radio show host who hailed from Hunt City, Illinois. Nearly a decade later, a tiny thirteen-year-old from Atlanta with a very big voice, Brenda Lee, recorded probably the best-known rendition of “Rocking Around the Christmas Tree.”

Forgive me while I wax sappy here, but how cool is it that five of the top Christmas carols that Christians across the country and even around the world have sung, hummed, and danced to, year in and year out, for over 60 years were written by Jewish composers and songwriters? This music has become the backdrop of the season in the U.S. for many and is likely to live on for generations. Kind of makes you want to break out into song, doesn’t it?

Written by

Bylines in Publishers Weekly, the Syracuse (NY) Post-Standard, others. One Sister’s Song (novel). Not Nearly Everything You Need to Know About Writing (ebook).

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