Eight Christmas Tunes Penned by Jewish Songwriters | Phoenix New Times

Eight Christmas Tunes Penned by Jewish Songwriters

Members of the tribe have given us some of the best songs in the Christmas canon.
Do you know who wrote your favorite Christmas songs?
Do you know who wrote your favorite Christmas songs? Larina Marina/Shutterstock
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No matter your religious beliefs, come December it's hard to escape malls decorated with bells and trees, peppermint and gingerbread coffee drinks at chain shops, and radio stations that switch to 24/7 Christmas tunes.

But amid the holiday hysteria, we'd like to remind you of one very cool fact about Christmas music — namely, that some of our most beloved yuletide tunes were penned by songwriters of the Jewish faith.

In the first half of the 20th century, the music industry was one of the few fields where non-Christians weren't discriminated against — at least, not as much as in other fields. The Jewish contribution to the modern Christmas canon is songs about the secular (but no less important) parts of the holiday: family, friends, and the joy of the season. The following songs, all written by Jews, are not just celebrations of the most unifying parts of the holiday season but a triumph of the American melting-pot immigrant experience. (And by the way, the worst Christmas song ever, "Do They Know It's Christmas," was not written by a Jew. One of the song's writers, Bob Geldof, has a Jewish paternal grandmother, but Geldof told a magazine that he currently practices no religion. Whew.) 

Without further ado, here are the best Christmas songs ever written by Jews.

'White Christmas,' Irving Berlin

Fun fact: the Arizona Biltmore hotel claims that Irving Berlin wrote this song by the iconic resort's pool. Of course, there's a La Quinta in Hollywood that disagrees. But come on, the Biltmore's gotta be way more inspirational, right?

'Let It Snow,' Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne

Nothing invokes nostalgia and fuzzy feelings like a fireplace. Cahn and Styne hit the nail on the head with this one, an ode to feeling warm, safe and peaceful while cold weather rages outside.

'Santa Baby,' Joan Javits and Philip Springer

Eartha Kitt delivers a fantastic performance in this song, about a woman who asks Santa for progressively more outrageous gifts. Dripping with flirtation, Kitt strikes a perfectly playful tone, making this song a delightful holiday romp.

'The Christmas Song,' Mel Torme

"Though it's been said, many times, many ways, Merry Christmas to you," go the lyrics in this timeless tune, written by the immeasurably talented Mel Torme. This song also features some tricky chord progressions, making it one of the more musically interesting of the classic Christmas songs.

'I'll Be Home for Christmas,' Kim Gannon and Walter Kent

Is there a more heartbreaking line in a holiday song than "I'll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams"? We doubt it. This song is written from the perspective of a soldier stationed overseas during World War II, and the melancholy and sadness of the lyrics stretch across generations. It feels particularly apt this year.

'Silver Bells,' Jay Livingston and Ray Evans

Apparently, the original title for this song was "Tinkle Bells." We're glad they switched it up.

'Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,' Johnny Marks

This children's classic has been covered by everyone from Spike Jones to Alvin and the Chipmunks. It's a nice reminder that what makes us different is also what makes us special.

'Winter Wonderland,' Felix Bernard and Richard B. Smith

Bernard, the composer, is the Jewish part of this songwriting duo. This is a wonderful song, and it doesn't get much more secular than this.

This piece originally published on December 14, 2014, and was updated for publication on December 10, 2020.
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