What could be less Jewish than Christmas? And yet, Jewish people have made much of the music that defines the holiday season. Jewish songwriters and lyricists composed many of the most famous Christmas music, and Jewish singers and musicians performed some of the most popular Christmas recordings.
Jewish people have been drawn to Christmas music for a range of reasons. Holiday cheer can be a way to show you’re truly an assimilated American —for a Jewish person, nothing demonstrates you belong quite like setting up that Christmas tree.
The flip side of that is that by creating the Christmas music canon, Jews have helped turn the holiday into a secular celebration of Americanness, rather than a purely religious holiday. Finally, some Jewish Christmas songs can be subversive or ironic, nodding to the distance between the performer or writer and the material.
No matter the reason for the season, though, Jewish people have made a lot of great Christmas music. Below is just a sample. The songs are listed in chronological order.
Benny Goodman – Jingle Bells (1935)
Clarinetist and bandleader Benny Goodman, one of the early stars of jazz, was the son of poor Polish Jewish immigrants. His first music lessons were at his local synagogue. “Jingle Bells” was already 80 years old when he performed this swinging fox trot arrangement, featuring a fleet, soulful New Orleans-style clarinet solo by Goodman. It’s a joyous declaration that this is his music, too.
The Drifters – White Christmas (1954)
(written by Irving Berlin)
Irving Berlin was the son of a Russian cantor and immigrated to the US at the age of five in 1893. He wrote “White Christmas” in 1940, and it became a hit for Bing Crosby in 1941. My favorite version though, is this aching doo-wop performance by the Drifters, with soaring tenor Clyde McPhatter and the amazing bass vocals of Bill Pinkney.
The Drifter’s preternaturally smooth harmonies are cheerful. But the group was singing in the Jim Crow era. In that context, you can’t help but hear “white” Christmas as a reference to a white Christian society that excluded Black people from American life and Christian fellowship. The Drifters’ performance highlights Berlin’s own semi-ironic, semi-wistful distance from Christianity, and from a mainstream white culture which he nonetheless helped define.
Nat King Cole Trio – The Christmas Song (1946)
(written by Robert Wells and Mel Tormé)
Mel Tormé was born to Jewish immigrants in Chicago. He became a celebrated singer, but his most enduring legacy may be this song, with its famous line about chestnuts roasting on an open fire. Nat King Cole’s seductively slow version became a major hit. This quintessential Jewish Christmas song is wholesome, but it sure sounds like there may be some nice naughtiness in the offing after the kids go to bed.
Frank Sinatra – Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow! (1950)
(written by Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne)
Lyricist Sammy Cahn and songwriter Jule Styne were both the children of Eastern European Jewish immigrants. They wrote “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” during a California heat wave to cool themselves off. It was first recorded in 1945, but Frank Sinatra’s 1950 version is probably the best known.
Ronettes – Sleigh Ride (1963)
With A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector, producer Phil Spector, the son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, crafted what is probably the most critically acclaimed Christmas album of all time. Spector was known for his Wall of Sound production, which used the studio to overwhelm the listener with dense orchestral pop arrangements. On “Sleigh Ride,” lead Ronnie Spector sings in an echo chamber of strings, harmonies, horses neighing, hooves clopping, and of course those sleigh bells.
Sammy Davis, Jr. – It’s Christmas Time All Over the World (1965)
Sammy Davis, Jr. converted to Judaism in 1961. That didn’t stop him from recording this song with a children’s chorus about how everyone everywhere celebrates Christmas. He knew that they don’t. But he probably figured that Christmas was his, too, as long as he was singing about it.
Simon and Garfunkel – 7 O’Clock News/Silent Night (1966)
“7 O’Clock News/Silent Night” is a sound collage. It starts with singers Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel performing a haunting version of “Silent Night.” Then you hear radio DJ Charlie O'Donnell’s voice reading news headlines about drug overdoses, racism, murder, and—especially—war. Simon and Garfunkel are both Jewish, which might have played a part in their choice of a Christmas hymn to highlight the distance between America’s professed Christian ethic and its actions in Vietnam.
Barbara Streisand – My Favorite Things (1967)
(written by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II)
“My Favorite Things,” written by Richard Rodgers and Jewish songwriter Oscar Hammerstein II, includes winter imagery, but it isn’t really a Christmas song. Jewish singer Barbara Streisand didn’t care, though. She included it on her best-selling blockbuster 1967 holiday A Christmas Album. As with much secular Jewish Christmas music, the song is less about worship, and more about the season and the big, big emotions.
Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass – Jingle Bell Rock (1968)
The son of Jewish immigrants in LA, Trumpeter Herb Alpert became famous for his distinctive blend of jazz, Latin music, and pop. This mariachi lounge treatment of a secular rock-and-roll Christmas hit is the quintessential sound of the melting pot.
Marc Bolan and T. Rex – Christmas Bop (1972)
English glam rock titan Marc Bolan was Jewish on his father’s side. His funky fuzzed-out “Christmas Bop” is a thoroughly secular tribute to the season. He doesn’t urge listeners to go to Church, but to “Get out your silk jeans/And your space shoes” for some Christmas boogie.
Whitney Houston – Do You Hear What I Hear? (1987)
(written by Gloria Shayne and Noël Regney)
Jewish songwriter Gloria Shayne often collaborated with her Christian husband Noël Regney. Together they wrote “Do You Hear What I Hear?” in 1962. It’s one of the most straightforwardly Christian religious songs on this list. Houston’s version is soulful and reverently bombastic.
Ramones – Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want to Fight) (1989)
Punk icon and singer Joey Ramone, aka Jeffrey Ross Hyman, was from a Jewish New York family. The band’s secular plea for domestic peace is all about providing useful relationship advice for the holiday season. “I loved you from the start/Christmas ain’t the time for breakin’ each other’s heart.”
Neil Diamond – You Make It Feel Like Christmas (1992)
Jewish icon Neil Diamond penned this song for The Christmas Album, a 1992 collection of holiday music. His performance brings the holiday schmaltz, complete with strings, earnest throbbing baritone, and uber-romantic lyrics. “You make it feel like Christmas/even when things go wrong/I hear the sound of Christmas/in your song—all year long.”
Kenny G – Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas (1994)
Kenny Gorelick’s Jewish curls are almost as famous as his smooth saxophone sounds. He’s become synonymous with mainstream American easy listening, so it was inevitable he’d record Christmas albums. This song is from his first, Miracles, and it’s got all the Kenny G trademarks. It’s mid-tempo and romantic, with improvisations that stay close to the melody. A perfect background for cuddling up by the fire, no matter what your religious convictions may be.
Beck – Little Drum Machine Boy (1996)
A track that openly hijacks Christian music for Jewish purposes. Beck takes the 1941 Christmas song “Little Drummer Boy,” stretches it out with hip-hop production and beats, and substitutes Hannukah lyrics. “Dropping science you don’t know what hit you/next thing you know you’re 13 gettin’ a Bar Mitzvah.” Take that Kris Kringle.
Amy Winehouse – I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus (2004)
Jewish-English singer Amy Winehouse brings soulful fire to this winking bit of Christmas innuendo. The little giggle at the end speaks to every Jewish kid who knew all along that Santa Claus was just some guy dressing up in a beard.
Bette Midler – I’ll Be Home for Christmas (2006)
In “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” the singer worries that she won’t be able to get home for Christmas at all. It’s a song about how the traditional wintry Christmas holiday celebration is distant and unreachable. And who better to sing it than Jewish Hawaiian singer Bette Midler?
Billy Joel – Christmas in Fallujah (2008)
Jewish singer-songwriter Billy Joel’s protest against the Iraq War is loud, unsubtle, angry, and very un-Christmasy. You can hear the sneer when he sings, “Peace on Earth, goodwill to men.”
Bob Dylan – Hark the Herald Angels Sing (2009)
Robert Zimmerman has always been a bit reticent about his relationship to his Jewish identity. That remains the case on his first Christmas album, recorded some 40 years into his career. The contrast between this delicate hymn and his characteristic rasp is almost comical. Does Dylan intend you to laugh? To be inspired? Either way, it’s certainly an unusual take on Christmas music.
John Zorn & friends – Winter Wonderland (2011)
(written by Felix Bernard and Richard Bernhard Smith)
Jewish saxophonist and avant-jazz weirdo John Zorn played “Winter Wonderland” at the 6th Street Synagogue on Christmas Eve, 2011. His version is noisy and shambolic, and you could see it as a Jewish artist giving Christmas a kick in the tuchas.
The song, though, was originally written by Jewish composer Felix Bernhard. In that context, Zorn is just bringing Jewish music to a Jewish venue. It’s not subversion, but reclamation.
Kacey Musgraves – Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (2016)
(written by Johnny Marks)
“Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” is a story about a bullied child discovering that his difference is a light. Jewish composer Johnny Marks must have been thinking about fitting in and not fitting in as he penned this parable for the gentiles. No wonder it resonated with Kacey Musgraves, who has spent her career cultivating and celebrating a queer audience.
John Legend – Silver Bells (2018)
(written by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans)
Jewish writers Jay Livingston and Ray Evans wrote this ode to “Christmas time in the city,” with its crowds and its bustle. John Legend’s soulful version captures the song’s cheerful, welcoming cosmopolitanism.
More Jews, More Christmas
This list could have been much longer. Johnny Marks alone wrote many more Christmas standards, including “Rockin Around the Christmas Tree,” and “A Holly Jolly Christmas.” Kiss, whose members are mostly Jewish, has an adorably sincere version of “White Christmas.” And what about the Bangles’ “Hazy Shade of Winter,” performed by Jewish singer Susannah Hoff and written by Jewish songwriter Paul Simon? It just goes to show Christmas is for everyone. But especially for Jewish musicians.
This article was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.