Christmas songs have a way of crossing cultures and connecting generations in a way that makes us want to count our blessings, writes guest columnist Alex Alben.
ON a warm Southwestern night in 1940, Russian-born Israel Isidore Beilin penned the most famous song of all time. Bing Crosby debuted the tune on Christmas Day, 1941, on the Kraft Music Hall radio program on the NBC network. Gaining popularity slowly, the melody reached the top of the “Your Hit Parade” music chart in October 1942 and, included in the Crosby-Fred Astaire motion picture, “Holiday Inn,” won Best Original Song at the 15th Academy Awards. We know the author as “Irving Berlin” and the song, of course, is “White Christmas.”
At the beginning of this November, more than 400 American radio stations switched to an all-Christmas music format and more than 500 in total will do so before Christmas Day. One Florida station jumped the gun two weeks before Halloween. Whether we celebrate Christmas as the birth of Jesus or simply embrace the secular elements of the winter holiday, the music of Christmas, both spiritual and fanciful, has firmly taken hold of the airwaves and popular imagination. What explains this phenomenon?
Many of us who love Christmas music — and I admit to having created no fewer than four Pandora Christmas-themed stations, ranging from Michael Bublé to indie rock — enjoy the break from the normal soundtrack of our lives and draw comfort from lyrics and melodies that evoke childhood memories of winter vacations and family gatherings.
Yet, on a deeper level, these holiday standards play into a cultural fantasy of small-town American life in less complex times — a time that never existed for the vast majority of American families and now resides in a distant past. As urban life plagues us with traffic congestion and the latest disorienting technology, the balm of celebrating “chestnuts roasting on an open fire” or tales of 19th century Parson Brown returns us to a mythical America of small towns populated by smiling children and happy parents. We may no longer understand the mechanics of decking “the halls with boughs of holly,” but it sounds festive and recalls European traditions brought to a new land.
In this context, the fact that Jewish-American composers wrote many of our most popular Christmas ballads should not be surprising. Seeking to reinvent themselves as red-blooded American patriots, many of these Tin Pan Alley songmeisters, like Berlin, changed their names and loudly converted to the American cultural norms they helped shape. Berlin, who escaped Cossack pogroms in his native land, also penned “God Bless America.”
Trying on their new identities like new sets of clothing, these young men frosted secular and escapist fantasies on top of traditional Christmas themes. Working in balmy Hollywood at the close of World War II, Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne wrote “Let it Snow,” describing a rather chaste hug and kiss, which provoke the singer to exclaim: “All the way home, I’ll be warm.” Jewish-American Johnny Marks not only wrote “Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer,” based on Robert May’s poem, but also penned “A Holly Jolly Christmas”; the lilting Burl Ives standard, “Silver and Gold”; and the perpetually played “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” popularized by the effervescent Brenda Lee. “The Christmas Song” itself was composed by singer Mel Tormé and his songwriting partner, Bob Wells.
Becoming a secular anthem for the holiday season and selling at least 20 million copies as a single, “White Christmas” has been performed by hundreds of artists ranging from Frank Sinatra to Smokey Robinson and The Miracles. Famous Jewish artists such as Barbra Streisand, Neil Diamond, Kenny G, Neil Sedaka and Idina Menzel have brought their own indelible styles to the Berlin tune. The Recording Industry Association of America ranked “White Christmas” as the No. 2 song of the 20th century, placing it only behind “Over The Rainbow.”
This holiday season, as we listen to old fashioned AM-FM radio or compose our own Internet radio mixes on Spotify or Rhapsody, let’s recognize that Christmas tunes, whether rooted in religious traditions or in a powerful cultural fantasy, create a musical interlude that gives us the chance to count our blessings.
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