For me, an Orthodox Jew in 21st-century America, December truly is the most wonderful time of the year.
Yes, there’s Hanukkah and the family and community celebration it entails. And, sure, there’s winter vacation, the week or so between Christmas and New Year’s when the kids are home from school and my wife and I take time off from work.
But I really love December because it’s around then that my cable provider revives its “Sounds of the Seasons” music channel, which airs round-the-clock Christmas music through early January. Yes, I admit it: My name is Michael Rosen, and I love Christmas music.
Let me be clear: I am deeply proud of my faith, which I practice rigorously. While I genuinely respect the tenets of other creeds, I abhor religious syncretism of all sorts, and I have no desire to observe Christian holidays; the 20-plus yearly holidays on the Jewish calendar are plenty, thank you very much. And I profoundly loathe aggressive proselytizers of all stripes, especially those, like Jews for Jesus, that train their fire on me and my people.
I’ve also enjoyed the recent boomlet in neo-Chanukah music, including the amusing (Adam Sandler’s iconic “Hanukkah Song” and its sequels, and Tom Lehrer’s hilarious “Hanukkah in Santa Monica”), the catchy (the sweet-natured, harmonious “Eight Days of Hanukkah” by the unlikely interfaith duo of Sen. Orrin Hatch and Jeffrey Goldberg), and the viral (“Candlelight” by the Maccabeats of Yeshiva University).
Yet Christmas music exerts a strong emotional and intellectual influence over me every December, for three distinct reasons, in increasing order of importance: its musical beauty; its deep-seated American-ness; and, most importantly, its powerful message of religious tolerance.
The first reason is more or less purely aesthetic. Christmas tunes are almost uniformly melodious and tend to evoke intense emotions ranging from joy to nostalgia. Some songs are frivolous, some serious, others uplifting, but they universally make for agreeable listening.
They also span many different genres and artists. Every superstar American musician — from Sinatra to Crosby to Fitzgerald to Elvis to George Michael to Beyoncé to (shudder) Kenny G — has performed a memorable version of at least one Christmas song, if not an entire album of such songs. Whether it’s Perry Como crooning “Do You Hear What I Hear?” or Nat King Cole scratching out “The Christmas Song,” or even Green Day screeching “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” the musical category enjoys an esteemed pedigree.
The second, more important reason I delight in Christmas music derives from its distinctly American character. Here, it’s important to distinguish the strictly religious Christmas songs, such as “The First Noël,” “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” and “Come All Ye Faithful,” from the generic “winter season” tunes, such as “Sleigh Ride,” “Walking in a Winter Wonderland,” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” These latter songs are as American as apple pie, expressing a seasonal commonality felt by all Americans, regardless of creed. Wintry themes such as snow, love, gifts, fires, and family offer something for everyone and remind us that Americans of varied faiths, ethnicities, and generations share much more than we think.
There’s no reason American Jews — even observant ones — can’t relate to these tunes. Indeed, as Marc Tracy and David Lehman have documented, many of the most famous of these wintry songs were written by Jewish composers, including Irving Berlin (“White Christmas”), Joan Ellen Javits and Phillip Springer (“Santa Baby”), Mel Tormé (“The Christmas Song”), and Sammy Cahn (“Let It Snow”).
And as Lehman ably explains in A Fine Romance (Nextbook, 222 pp.), his perceptive history of the influence of Jewish songwriters on the American musical catalog, “the Jewish element in American popular song is a property not only of the notes and chords but of the words as well, or, more exactly, the union between words and music.” Jewish songwriters absorbed and displayed a discerning understanding of American culture. (This unexpected truth provoked a splenetic tirade last year from Garrison Keillor, who railed against “lousy holiday songs by Jewish guys” and un-Christianly explained that “Christmas is a Christian holiday — if you’re not in the club, then buzz off.”)