While anticipating the harmonious a cappella of Christmas Carols at my doorstep, I recall the words of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, “Music is the universal language of mankind.” The music of Christmas represents peace, joy and hope and it has become a genre of its very own. But contrary to common thought, Christmas in America was not always something to sing about.
The Pilgrims forbid any observance of Christmas— too much debauchery and promiscuity. Even after America’s independence, celebrations continued to be discouraged. Up until the early 19th Century, Christmas was a raucous carnival dreaded by the “upper class” and anticipated with trepidation by local authorities. Public celebrations were outlawed in Boston and anyone exhibiting the Christmas spirit was fined five shillings. In 1828, the Yuletide riots were so violent that the NYPD was founded at least partially as a result. There are complex sociopolitical theories for this post-pilgrim, oft-forgotten glitch in history, but most attribute its ill reputation to cold weather, high unemployment and class conflict.
Then America boomed. The first transcontinental railroad was completed, and Andrew Carnegie established our first steel mills. Rockefeller made energy affordable. Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison appeared on the scene. They introduced more than inventions; they pioneered a new American passion: Philanthropy. As much as they competed to see who could make the most money, they raced to see who could give it away the quickest. Carnegie gave away more than 350 million dollars. Rockefeller? A whopping 500 million. Translated into today’s market, that is well over 100 billion dollars. We became the envy of the planet. By the late 19th century, fourteen million immigrants came to the land of opportunity — not to take advantage, but to contribute. As America’s melting pot simmered, Christmas was embraced like never before and music was a re-choir-ment.
On June 26, 1870, “… the twenty-fifth day of December, commonly called Christmas Day” was declared a national holiday by an act of Congress. And although the decision to delegate December 25 as the official date was chosen sometime in the fourth century, we know Jesus was actually born in the springtime (but that’s another story).
To practicing Christians, Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus and is steeped in religion. To those of us Hanukkah Celebrators, it often coincides with our holiday and represents a time to appreciate all we have to be thankful for. In America, particularly for those of us who are Jewish in smaller towns like Victoria, Texas, we are delighted that our children are out of school and many businesses are closed. Friends and families gather, and we strive to follow in the footsteps of the philanthropists.
The most popular tunes Christmas tunes also form an undeniable confirmation of America’s Judeo-Christian bond. Jewish composers’ prolific contributions to the “Christmas Spirit” include the most-recorded Christmas song, “White Christmas” by Russian Immigrant Irving Berlin, and “Sleigh Ride” by Mitchell Parish from Lithuania. “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” was written by J. Fred Coots, and who would guess that “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” was composed by Johnny Marks, whose notoriety also includes a Bronze Star and four Battle Stars during World War II. He also wrote “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” and “A Holly Jolly Christmas.” The duo of Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne wrote “Let It Snow!” “Winter Wonderland” was composed by Felix Bernard. My favorite, “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire” was written by Robert Levinson and Mel Tormé. “Silver Bells” was written by Jacob Levinson and “There’s No Place Like Home for the Holidays” is by Bob Allen and Al Stillman. “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” was written by Walter Kauffman. “Santa Baby” was written by Joan Javits and “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is by Frank Loesser. “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” was written by Ellie Greenwich, Jeff Barry and Phil Spector and became a hit for Darlene Love in 1963. And for David Bowie’s Mother “Peace on Earth” was composed by Fraser, Grossman, and Kohan to form a medley with The Little Drummer Boy by Harry Moses Simeone, which Bowie recorded with Bing Crosby in 1977…you get the idea.
So, now in my 60’s, after having raised and Bat-Mitzvahed Sarah, Shaina and Hannah from my previous marriage, I do feel like Christmas is indeed “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year” (written by Bernard Weissman). We do love Sukkot, Purim and Passover — and don’t misunderstand, I do respect and understand the pious religious significance of the Christian Celebration for Christians. For me however, enjoying the “American Holiday” doesn’t require me to practice Christianity any more than Labor Day forces me to join a union. So as I sit back and sip some Manischewitz while flipping the latkes and light my Hanukkah menorah alongside my girlfriend’s Christmas Tree, we will enjoy one of Neil Diamond’s four Christmas Albums; I think even the Pilgrims would approve.
Wishing a Healthy Happy Hanukkah, a Very Merry Christmas, and a joyous and prosperous New Year to one and all.