Monday, December 28, 2009

Jewish Songwriters and Christmas

From Jeff Jacoby:
JEWISH SONGWRITERS have created some of the most enduringly popular songs of the season -- Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas,” of course, but also “The Christmas Song,” “Silver Bells,” and “I’ll Be Home For Christmas,” among others. Some people might view that as a heartening, only-in-America expression of interfaith goodwill and warmth. But not Garrison Keillor:

“All those lousy holiday songs by Jewish guys that trash up the malls every year, Rudolph and the chestnuts and the rest of that dreck,” he fumed in a recent column for the Baltimore Sun. “Christmas is a Christian holiday -- if you’re not in the club, then buzz off.” His piece bore the sour headline: “Nonbelievers, please leave Christmas alone.”

Remember the days when Keillor was endearing and witty? It’s a shame to see him grown so cranky and intolerant. What kind of grinch thinks “White Christmas” is “dreck?”

Well, here’s hoping that all the songs written by those “Jewish guys” didn’t put too big a damper on Keillor’s Christmas this year. And let’s hope no one ruined it entirely by letting him know that the Jewish connection to Christmas didn’t start with Irving Berlin.
The Keillor column is actually a bit more nuanced that Jacoby lets on, since Keillor takes a swipe at a Unitarian church where (in his words) “I discovered that ‘Silent Night’ has been cleverly rewritten to make it more about silence and night and not so much about God.”

But the issue still remains: Is it really a bad thing that Jewish songwriters have written a lot of the most popular Christmas songs?

In the first place, all the most popular songs by Jewish writers are secular, and not religious in nature. There is a lot of holly, and no baby Jesus. So it doesn’t seem that Jewish songwriters have been asserting any theological concepts that they don’t believe.

In the second place, Christmas is a time of good cheer, family and giving for the 80% of Americans who claim to be Christians, and doubtless for most of the remainder who, whatever their religious beliefs, enjoy the vast majority of things that come with Christmas.

So should Jews, and particularly Jewish songwriters, begrudge any of this? Should a catering firm run by Gentiles refuse to cater bar mitzvahs? Only if one thinks that other people’s religious observances are illegitimate. We can think of some religious practices in some places at some times that really are illegitimate. But Christmas isn’t among them, and neither are any of the religious practices of American Jews.

And we can’t help wondering, of what religion was the person who wrote “Grandma Got Run Over By a Raindeer?”

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