Schmeck the Halls: How Jewish Songwriters Created Christmas


Oy, Christmas. It just wouldn’t be the same without Jewish songwriters.

Earlier this month, the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers released its annual survey of the 10 most-played Christmas songs. Jews wrote half of them: White Christmas, The Christmas Song, Winter Wonderland, The Most Wonderful Time of the Year and I’ll Be Home for Christmas. And that’s just a few crumbs from the kugel.

Silver Bells, Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow! and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer were also yuletide gifts from the sons of Abraham. Johnny Marks, who put Rudolph in flight (twice: he also wrote Run Rudolph Run for Chuck Berry) and gave Burl Ives A Holly Jolly Christmas, wrote at least a dozen other Christmas songs. He was such a specialist in Christmas cheer, he called his publishing company St. Nicholas Music.


It wasn’t enough just to tell people to buy; they had to have some warmer, more collective mythology, something related to the generosity supposedly ingrained in Christmas traditions. Never mind that the oldest tradition was all about the miracle of divine birth, in relation to which the gifts of the Magi stood as token offerings to a god. The mythology would be most inclusive if it played down the Nativity, focused on scenery borrowed from Charles Dickens, and translated those images to America – to the white snow, ruddy cheeks and sleigh bells of a rustic Christmas in New England.

The fact that much of that scenery and its sentimental trappings were painted and celebrated in song by urban Jews was not just a fluke of history. Only when Christmas could be defined by people who had nothing invested in Christmas as a religious occasion could the event become secular enough to include everybody with cash or credit card. Christmas as we know it in our malls and superstores needed outsiders – including Jewish songwriters – to make it what it is.