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Today, I’m on a special mission. In honor of the beginning of December and the holiday season I’m talking about Christmas carols today their history their tradition and why they mirror yours and my experience and our heritage.
I used to love Christmas carols. I used to hear them and get all excited because it’s that great time. And even though, admittedly, I’m Jewish, I come from one of those weird Jewish families that’s always celebrated Christmas. All the way back to just about the first generation that came over from Germany, my family celebrates Christmas. I’ve always had a Christmas tree, I’ve always had Christmas ornaments, I’ve always woken up excited about Christmas morning.
For a little bit in the eighties and nineties I even went to midnight mass. I love Christmas. But there’s something about Christmas carols that makes me cranky and I don’t know why. Don’t get me wrong, some are great, but it’s really hard sometimes to find a Christmas carol that isn’t just a little bit cheesy. So I decided maybe if I looked at them they wouldn’t bug me as much. Where did they come from and what are they saying?
I’ve learned something about Christmas carols and it’s this: They completely mirror our history. They’re dance tunes and they’re songs of need and songs of protest; songs of plea and celebration and prayer. They’re also just downright business models in that writing a Christmas tune has sometimes been a very reliable way of earning a living.
Deck the Hall
So we’re going to talk about some Christmas carols and where they come from. We started with Deck the Hall and that version was Whitney Houston, which I think is a really great version. Deck the Hall was a dance tune for people to dance in a circle like an 18th century version of a square dance. This square dance was meant to revolve around the one instrument that could be available – the harp. Deck the Hall was meant to be a group of people singing the song and dancing in a circle around a harpist. Back then, in the 18th century, this was the fun thing to do. The problem is, a harpist isn’t always available and so because the harpist isn’t available they had to find a way to fill in what would ordinarily be the harpist’s solo. So they filled it in with nonsense words, with gibberish; “fa la la la la la la la la” is meant to be sung not only to amplify what the harpist is doing but also to fill in those moments when there was no soloist to give that all important harp solo. This song had such an impact, and it’s an ancient tune, that it was sampled by both Haydn and Mozart. Sampled like rappers sample songs that come before them, Mozart and Haydn both sampled Deck the Hall. Let’s hear just a little bit of Mozart’s Sonata no. 18.
Deck the Hall was a dance tune of celebration around people coming together and singing and dancing around the harp.
We Wish You a Merry Christmas
I want to talk about a song that I’ve long hated: We Wish You a Merry Christmas. I hated it because when I was a kid, I always had to play this song and it always sounded like this: “We wissssssssshhhhhhhhhhhhhh you a merry Christmas, we wissssssssshhhhhhhhhhhhhh you a merry Christmas…” and I always thought that was sort of annoying. But, now I have read about the song, and now it’s got a whole new meaning to me because what that song really is is a beggar’s song. I mean now I listen to the song and I hate it even more because here’s what the song was:
The song was meant to be sung and was sung by carolers. Carolers were serfs. They were the servants in feudal England who worked the land only for the benefit of the landowner; of the few rich people, the aristocracy, that controlled all the land and the money and the opportunity in feudal in England. But, the people who lived and worked the land and made the landowners rich, and kept them rich, they wanted to celebrate Christmas. So, what they would do is they would get together in a group and go around to all the rich people’s houses. They would stand outside these houses and they would sing songs begging for treats. So when you hear the line, “Now bring us figgy pudding,” they’re saying, “Hey, we’ve been standing here singing. Bring us the figgy pudding. We mean it. And we’re not just swearin’ at ya. Bring us the figgy pudding now, you figging landowner who controls everything about me.”
Let’s hear just a moment of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” so you can think about it in a whole new light.
O Come All Ye Faithful
The last song we’re going to cover in this segment is O Come All Ye Faithful. This is a song that I love, but’s it’s got an interesting history. O Come All Ye Faithful is an old song. It’s an ancient song. But there was a struggle.
We were just in the 1500s listening to a beggar’s song, and things progressed a little bit in England, things start to take shape, and the Crown starts to fight each other and knock each other off the throne, and Henry VIII says no more Catholicism, let’s become the Church of England. And the Catholics keep battling back for power, and the Catholics take the throne again and then they get thrown off the throne, and there’s a movement to bring the Catholics back – the rightful owners of the throne – it’s called the Jacobite Movement. There was a guy named Bonnie Prince Charlie who was the prince who lived in exile, and all these Catholics said, “Let’s bring him back.” And this one guy, John Francis Wade, ran from England to the United States, took this ancient tune and rewrote the lyrics to become O Come All Ye Faithful. And when he says, “O Come All Ye Faithful,” what he’s really saying is, “Hey, faithful Englanders, bring back Bonnie Prince Charlie. Bring back the Catholics.” This is a protest song that masquerades as a Christmas carol.
That was Silent Night, and this entire segment will be about Silent Night because it’s got a great history. It’s an amazing, amazing story. But first, let me say this. You know that song Hallelujah, by Leonard Cohen? The problem with Hallelujah is when people do Hallelujah they put way too much emotion, way too much orchestration into it. It’s a great song. It needs none of that. Sing the words, whichever version of his stuff you like, and sing the notes and you’ve got yourself a tearjerker. If you add more stuff into it and try and bring your own import, you sort of lose a little bit. It gets a little maudlin. Same thing with Silent Night.
Silent Night is such a beautiful song that when you slow down the tempo, add tons and tons of orchestration or try and put way too much feeling into it, you sort of lose it a little bit because it’s so magnificent it doesn’t need your embellishments. It just needs to be faithfully sung well. It needs the sparest arrangement possible. I listened to a lot of Christmas carols getting ready for this show, and there are very few arrangements of Silent Night that I want to listen to ’cause they’re all over produced. That was the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and that was the sparest arrangement I could find. It’s also an important arrangement because it’s mostly guitar, which matters because I want to tell you about the creation of Silent Night.
In 1816 there was this Austrian priest, named Joseph Mohr. Joseph Mohr sat down one night and wrote Silent Night. He just wrote a poem, called Silent Night – or “Stille Nacht” in German – and he kept it in his prayer book and went about his business and got promoted and moved to a new parish.
One night, he was getting ready for midnight mass on Christmas Eve, and while he was rehearsing the music and his sermon, the organ breaks. Now it’s Christmas Eve, and it’s Austria in 1816 so they couldn’t get an Internet connection to call for a repairman. So there’s nobody who’s going to fix this organ in time for Christmas Eve services, which is just a few hours away. But there’s somebody there who’s rehearsing. A schoolteacher, every once in awhile he wrote some diddies, his name was Franz Gruber.
Joseph Mohr pulled his poem out of his prayer book that he’d been carrying around for two years from parish to parish, gives it to Franz Gruber, the schoolteacher, and he says, “Can you do something with this? We’ve got no music for Christmas Eve, and this is my first appearance on Christmas Eve and I need to make a big show.” So Franz Gruber takes the poem and he reads it and says, “This is beautiful.” And he instantly sits down, inspired, and writes the tune to Silent Night for accompaniment by two guitars. He finishes the song just in time for mass, and the two of them – Joseph Mohr and Franz Gruber, the schoolteacher slash composer – perform Silent Night for the first time, accompanying themselves on the guitar.
Silent Night takes off. It got adopted by various family singing groups in Germany and Austria that were popular 1830s – sort of the 19th century version of the Jacksons or the Osmonds. It becomes a hit. Today, just about everybody has done this song.
Let’s hear Tom Waits doing his version of some Silent Night.
There are all kinds of versions of Silent Night, but my favorite version is the one that was sung by opposing forces during WWI, and here’s the story:
Christmas Eve 1914. WWI is raging. It’s the war to end all wars, and the Germans and the Americans are at it like mad and somebody suggests a truce for the Christmas holiday, but they have a hard time settling down. And, it turns out that as this truce starts to develop, the one thing the Germans and the Americans have in common is the song Silent Night. Everybody knows it. It is the one common denominator. So they begin to sing Silent Night, and for the week before Christmas Silent Night breaks the ice and they begin to visit each other and talk about their families. Talk rather than shoot. The war did continue after Christmas, but, for that brief moment, Silent Night, as an absolute celebration of everything we love about Christmas, broke the ice and allowed two warring sides to come together in peace.
That was Bing Crosby singing White Christmas. White Christmas was written by Irving Berlin. Now we’re getting into the 20 century and the moment in time when we start to get a little bit of pluralism, a little bit of progress, so here come the Jews. Christmas carols written in the 20th century and beyond are really the stories of Jewish songwriting. Now, that doesn’t mean that all Christmas carols written beginning in the 1900s and on were written by Jews, or even that the best ones were written by Jews – some of the songs I’m going to play are terrible – but there’s a huge tradition of Jewish composers writing very successful Christmas carols in the United States.
White Christmas is regarded as the most successful, best-selling Christmas carol ever. I have to admit, I truly hate this song. I hate it. It’s maudlin, to me, it’s boring, I’ve heard it a gazillion times, I don’t ever need hear it again. To me, it’s like the “My Girl” of Christmas carols. It is so overplayed that if I never hear it again it’ll still play my head sometimes on its own. But it is a big song.
Irving Berlin wrote this song and Irving Berlin is like the classic American immigrant story. Irving Berlin was born in 1888 in Russia. He was Jewish and his father was a cantor. In 1888 in Russia, Jews didn’t have a lot of rights, they didn’t have a lot of money, but one thing they had was music. So Irving Berlin’s one entertainment and excitement – the one place his parents could take him for enrichment – was the shul – the synagogue – where he would listen to his father sing prayers. Irving Berlin’s first memory was of lying on the side of the road wrapped in a blanket, watching the Russians burn his house down in a pogrom. A pogrom was essentially an attack that people did to the Jews in Europe, where they would run through their neighborhoods and slash and burn and kill. So that was Irving Berlin’s first memory.
His parents lost everything so they left. They just sort of took off and they came to America. They got here in 1893 when Irving Berlin was five years old and his father couldn’t get work as a cantor so they were bitterly poor and his father ended up dying 10 years after they got there, when Irving Berlin was 13. So Irving Berlin quit school and started essentially singing on the street and selling newspapers for money, and that’s how he helped put food on the table for his family. But singing was always his thing, so he became a songwriter, and he became one of the great American songwriters.
He was born in Israel Beilin, but when he wrote his first song in 1907 and got it published, it came back from the sheet music company and his name was misspelled as “I. Berlin” so he just went with it. Some American – some authority – that had issued to him his first sheet music – said your name’s “I. Berlin” so he just changed his name.
He married an Episcopal woman so his children and his wife always celebrated Christmas. He goes along and he writes America the Beautiful which became the second national anthem and a bunch of other incredibly important songs, most of which you’d know, and he gets to the late 30s, early 40s and he’s tasked with writing a musical, called Holiday Inn. He has to write a bunch of holiday songs – songs about holidays – and in that, he writes White Christmas. Nobody thinks it’s going to be a hit. Nobody. And it wasn’t. But, on Christmas Day 1941, Bing Crosby sang White Christmas on TV on his Christmas special. Remember, that was the very beginning of WWII. The beginning was December 7 with Pearl Harbor, which was earlier in the month. Now, Bing Crosby sings the song and it has an impact. Not a big impact, but a little impact, and then it starts to spread and by October 1942 to world is knee-deep in war, and White Christmas is the big song at the top of the charts, and it begins to define the American experience. It was so popular that the armed forces radio in Europe, where soldiers were fighting, was inundated with requests to play White Christmas, so they had to play it on a loop during the holidays because it was so popular. And that song becomes the giant seller – it becomes the big hit – and it rolls along.
It’s ironic because Irving Berlin hated Christmas – which made it hard for him to write and love this song which made him the most amount of money and made him the most amount of fame – because his own newborn son, Irving Berlin Jr., died in 1928 on Christmas Day. So Christmas was always a melancholy experience, always a difficult moment, and yet he wrote a Christmas carol that became the biggest Christmas carol in the history of Christmas carols.
Everybody recorded it and Irving Berlin was happy about the fact it was so popular until 1957 when he heard Elvis Presley’s version. When he heard Elvis Presley’s version he called it a “profane parody of his cherished yuletide standard” and he was so outraged he ordered his staff to call every radio station and yank it off the air. But he couldn’t get it off the air, and the reason Irving Berlin couldn’t yank it off the air was because at the beginning of his career, Irving Berlin helped establish an organization called ASCAP, which was the first brick in the infrastructure for automatic licensing – in a way – to radio stations, and he no longer had the ability to pull his songs off the air just because he didn’t like a version.
So, let’s hear a little bit of the version that Irving Berlin called a “profane parody of his cherished yuletide standard.” This is White Christmas by Elvis Presley.
That song makes me hate White Christmas – and Elvis, actually.
Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)
We’re going to wrap up segment 3 with another song that is also one of the most popular songs – it’s also a song I hate hate, I’ve got to be honest – also written by couple of Jews. It’s the Christmas Song, what you know as Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire. Here is its backstory:
July 1945. It is a hot summer day. Mel Torme, the singer and songwriter, is going over to his songwriting partner’s house, whose name was Bob Wells. Both of these men were Jewish, and Mel gets to Bob’s house and sees a poem on Bob’s piano stand that says, “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire, Jack Frost nipping at your nose.” Bob Wells comes in the room, and Mel Torme says, “What is this?” And Bob says, “Well, it’s so hot today, I thought I’d write something to cool myself off, but all I could think of was Christmas and cold weather.” So, Mel Torme says, “Well, this looks like a song.” And 45 minutes later it was done.
Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer
The song we just came in with was Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer. I mean seriously, one of the worst Christmas carols ever – maybe Jingle Bells is worse – but Rudolph is pretty bad. That was Lena Horne’s version, which is really the only version that I could stand. Rudolph was written by yet another Jew – a guy named Johnny Marks. Johnny Marks was this amazing guy. Johnny Marks was a captain in the Army during WWII. He got a bronze star and four combat ribbons, and he left the military and he became a songwriter. He wrote some of the biggest songs in the Christmas carol canon. He wrote Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer, he also wrote A Holly Jolly Christmas, recorded by Burl Ives, he wrote Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree, which is Brenda Lee, and Run Rudolph Run for Chuck Berry.
But this song, he wrote for his brother in law. Johnny Marks’s brother-in-law was a copywriter – a Chicago employee of Montgomery Ward – and his name was Robert May. In 1939, his boss at Montgomery Ward said, “Listen, can you write us a coloring book? We want to give away a coloring book, maybe with a story, to give away to kids at Christmas.” At that point, Montgomery Ward was sort of like the Target of today – sort of a discount store. So, Robert May wrote this thing called “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”
Then, Robert May did something really interesting and really smart; he decided to leave Montgomery Ward, but he also asked if he could have the rights to Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer. At first, Montgomery Ward said no, but then ended up giving him the rights, and Robert May took it and made a fortune. He published it commercially, it then became a 9-minute cartoon, which I’m sure you’ve seen, and he gave it to his brother-in-law, Johnny Marks, to write a song based on his story. That song was Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer, and it became a gigantic hit.
Explanation for Jewish Christmas Carol Writers
So, why were there so many Jewish Christmas carol writers? Irving Berlin wrote White Christmas, Mel Torme wrote Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire, Sammy Cahn and Julie Styne wrote Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!, Johnny Marx wrote Rudolph, George Wyle wrote It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year (and the Gilligan’s Island theme song) and a guy named Buck Ram wrote I’ll Be Home for Christmas.
But why? Why were there so many Jewish carol writers? I can tell you why Jews were musically inclined. They were musically inclined because for 1000 years – between about 800 – 1800 and even beyond – Jews weren’t allowed by law to get involved in most professions. The one thing they could do is they could be entertainers. They could do stuff in music. They were excluded from doing music for royal orchestras, they couldn’t do music for the Crown, they couldn’t do serious music, but they could do gypsy-style entertaining. So, they became entertainers and songwriters, and because they had his deep tradition – as Irving Berlin did – of singing prayers and learning to sing prayers through cantors in synagogue, they got that training. They didn’t need to get it in school because they got it in shul. So, they had the training and they had the opportunity, and then they came to the United States looking for freedom with all this musical training and a musical history and heritage, right about the time when the piano became mass produced. And those factors all came together to create an entire generation of great songwriters. But it wasn’t just that generation.
Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)
So Johnny Marks wrote Rudolph in 1948. In 1963, a songwriter – Jewish woman songwriter – who worked in the Brill Building – the old Tin Pan Alley, the old songwriting machine – was in an elevator in the Brill Building, where she overheard two people having a jealous conversation about this fella, Johnny Marx, who wrote Rudolph and got $80,000 a year for it. And she said, “Well, you know what? I’m gonna write a Christmas song and see what I can do.” And she wrote Christmas (Baby Please Come Home), recorded by the great Darlene Love.
Let’s hear a minute of it.
All I Want for Christmas is You
There’s one more carol I want to play. I have no backstory for it, but it is the one great modern Christmas carol. It’s All I Want for Christmas is You by Mariah Carey, who’s of African American and Venezuelan descent and Walter Afanasieff was born to Russians living in Brazil. So, these are the modern, multiracial immigrants who were creating music and they’ve created what they New Yorker called, “one of the few modern additions to the holiday canon.”