Special Report

Christmas Melodies From Near and Far

There are many good reasons why they've become our favorite things.

By 12.24.09

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In recent years people have started adding Rodgers and Hammerstein's "My Favorite Things" to the Christmas canon. In a way it feels like creeping secularization -- the song doesn't have much to do with Christmas -- but then neither does Jingle Bells when you come right down to it, so why not? Christmas has always been able to incorporate all kinds of local customs without losing its significance.

Last week, Michael Feinstein, a performer of Christmas concerts, pointed out on the New York Times op-ed page that many portions of the Christmas canon have been written by Jewish composers:

If you look at a list of the most popular Christmas songs, you'll find that the writers are disproportionately Jewish: Irving Berlin's "White Christmas," "The Christmas Song" (yes, Mel Tormé was Jewish), "Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!" "I'll Be Home for Christmas," "Silver Bells," "Santa Baby," "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" and "Winter Wonderland" -- perennial, beloved and, mostly, written for the sheet music publishers of Tin Pan Alley….

True enough. It's certainly a tribute to the talents of Jewish composers. But it also says something about the appeal of Christmas even to those who don't completely partake in it. In particular, I've always loved the intro to "White Christmas" (they don't play it very much), which says all anyone would ever want about those poor folk who must spend Christmas in hot climates:

The sun is shining
The grass is green
The orange and palm trees sway.
I've never seen such a day
In Beverly Hills LA.
But it's December the 24th
And I am longing to be up North.

I'm dreaming of a White Christmas…

In fact, the Christmas canon as it comes down to us is a beautiful compendium of the 20 centuries that have passed since the events by which we mark our calendar. Christmas carols are generally traced to St. Francis of Assisi, who introduced them after being inspired by preaching to the birds and woodland animals. Many are adapted folk tunes. "Ding Dong Merrily on High" -- one of my favorites - was a medieval dance. (Take a deep breath when you begin the "Glo-oo-oo-oo-ria.") "What Child Is This?" of course is the traditional "Greensleeves" with lyrics written in 1865 by William Chatterton Dix, a 29-year-old insurance company manager who had gone into a deep depression after a near-fatal illness. His composition helped him recover.

"The Twelve Days of Christmas" was first published in 1760 but seems to be French in origin. (We know this because French partridges roosted in trees while English partridges did not.) The song dates from the period when Christmas and present giving was celebrated all the way from December 25 to January 5, also marked in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night. (Think of what the department stores could do with that.)

In fact, Christmas has been through many, many permutations over the centuries. Until the Protestant Reformation, most considered it a pagan ritual. Martin Luther became the first man to decorate a Christmas tree. He is often credited with writing "Away in a Manger" as well, but that is apocryphal. The carol first appeared in Philadelphia in 1885 in a Lutheran Evangelical songbook called the Little Children's Book for Schools and Families.

While German Protestants embraced caroling, English Puritans rejected it as too much fun. After Cromwell's fall, however, English Christmas music underwent a spectacular revival when German composer George Frideric Handel followed George I to England and completed The Messiah in 1742. For good measure, he also wrote "Joy to the World." "O Come All Ye Faithful," which is of uncertain origin, appears to have arrived in England in 1785 as "The Portuguese Hymn."

Meanwhile, the Puritans had brought their dour attitudes to the New World and Christmas was not celebrated in Massachusetts until after the Civil War. Instead we owe our holiday customs to the good-hearted German immigrants who populated New York and Pennsylvania.

It was a New Englander, however, James Lord Pierpont, who composed "Jingle Bells," commemorating a sleigh ride he had taken in his youth in New Hampshire. By the time he published it in 1857, however, he had become a church music director in Savannah, Georgia. In the interim, Pierpont had run away to sea, married and then virtually abandoned his wife and children by leaving them with his father to join the California gold rush, failed in the West and written a song about it ("The Sheriff's running after me with pockets full of writs"). His nephew, J.P. Morgan, fared much better.

The Christmas canon exploded in the 19th century, when religious and popular themes converged around European classical music. The French added "The First Noel," and "Angels We Have Heard on High." Although they never quite mastered opera or symphonies (excent for Carmen), they were always great with a melody. "Hark the Herald Angels Sing," written by Protestant reformer Charles Wesley in 1734, was set to the music of Felix Mendelssohn. "O Holy Night," penned by Adolphe Adam (who like Mendelssohn was also Jewish), was banned for many years by the Catholic Church for being "too secular."

Amateurs also played a big part. "O Little Town of Bethlehem" was composed in a field outside Bethlehem on Christmas Eve, 1865 by Philip Brooks, a Philadelphia Episcopal minister. John Hopkins, another American pastor, wrote "We Three Kings" in 1857. The poem "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear" was written in 1849 by Edmund Sears, another New England minister, and put to music a year later by Richard Storrs Willis, a New York church organist who had trained under Mendelssohn. "Silent Night," perhaps the best loved of Christmas carols, was dashed off in 1818 by Joseph Mohr, an Austrian priest, who was forced to improvise when the church organ broke down on Christmas Eve.

Most 20th century contributions have been in the popular vein, with movies and show tunes playing their part. "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" was a poem originally written in 1939 by Robert L. May as part of a Montgomery Ward marketing campaign. Ten years later May's brother-in-law, songwriter Johnny Marks, put it to music and Gene Autry recorded it. Marks' Christmas contributions also included "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" for Brenda Lee, "Holly Jolly Christmas" for Burl Ives, and "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day," the last being an adaptation of an 1865 poem written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow upon hearing his son had been wounded in the Civil War.

Mel Tormé and Bob Wells, two transplanted New Yorkers, wrote "The Christmas Song" while suffering through a Los Angeles heat wave in 1944. Jay Livingston and Ray Evans' "Silver Bells" debuted in Bob Hope's The Lemon Drop Kid (1950). "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," now the third most played Christmas song on ASCAP, was written by Hugh Martin while vacationing at his parents' home in Alabama. (Isn't it amazing how often inspiration came in non-wintery climes?) It was introduced by Judy Garland in Meet Me in St. Louis (1944). And of course Bing Crosby introduced Berlin's "White Christmas" in Holiday Inn (1942).

So here's a question. If so many Christmas standards have been written by Jewish composers, why aren't there any good Hanukkah songs? After all, how many times can you sing, "Dreidel, dreidel, dreidel"?

Well, here's a nomination.

Several years ago my son was in a middle school chorus in Brooklyn. Every year they sang a hora-like Hanukkah song so mournful and stirring it made you want to be Jewish.

Light the candle, spin the dreidel,
Sing the songs that tell the fable

For years I wondered, "Why have I never heard this song anywhere else?" Then I discovered why. The chorus director, Alan Zwirn, a hard-working middle -school music teacher, had written it himself. Like all those other obscure 19th century parsons, he had gotten a melody in his head. I asked Zwirn if he had ever attempted to market it to congregations around the country. He said he had tried but had never had much luck. Still, I encouraged him not to give up. After all, "Jingle Bells," written years after James Lord Pierpont's failures in the Gold Rush, did not become popular until long after his death.

Merry Christmas to all.

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About the Author
William Tucker is news editor for RealClearEnergy.org.