Whether in shopping malls or school halls, on radio, television, and cell phone ring-tones, it is impossible to escape ubiquitous Christmas songs. Jewish children inevitably get caught up in the music, sometimes to the chagrin of their parents. And Jewish adults will sometimes catch themselves unawares, humming or singing one of the tunes associated with the season. (In fact, some of these tunes have made there way into some synagogue services!) For some, this phenomenon is embarrassing; evidence of some kind of disloyalty. In reality, it is evidence of the influence of Jews and Judaism on Western culture.
In his watershed study of the history of Jewish music entitled The Sacred Bridge published in 1959 and updated in 1974, musicologist Eric Werner argued that the Gregorian chant, the basic element of church music was essentially a borrowing from the traditional Jewish chant of the Psalter dating back to Temple times. (The Second Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in the year 70 C.E.) And the notes that guided the chants were a direct descendant of the much older Jewish cantillation. Since all scholars agree that Gregorian chants were the forerunners of more modern music – secular as well as sacred – the inevitable conclusion is that the music we hear today owes its very existence to Jewish creativity. More recent scholars, incidentally, have shown Werner’s research to be conclusive.
The Catholic Encyclopedia also reminds us that the early Church Fathers were antagonistic towards music, believing it to be inappropriate for holy proceedings. And the fact that Jews incorporated music in the Temple – including an organ – was a further reason for the Church to avoid it. But the aesthetic appeal of music was undeniable. In time, the Church changed from a body opposed to music to one that tolerated and eventually advocated music in ritual. It was then that Jews began to recoil from music in ritual, not wanting to emulate Christians. Only in the sixteenth century did Judaism enjoy a renaissance in synagogue music. But the original use of music in liturgy was a uniquely Jewish invention.
In modern times, it was a small group of Jewish songwriters who, collectively though independently, popularized a host of songs that now have become so closely associated with the Christmas season that it would be impossible to think of Christmas without them. Of the ten most played Christmas songs surveyed by the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers un December 2010, five were written by Jews: “The Christmas Song,” “Winter Wonderland,” “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” and, of course, the best-selling pop tune of all time (125 million copies sold!) and the song that, in 1942, launched the parade of modern Christmas music, Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas.” Aside from “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” Johnny Marks wrote so many Christmas songs that he called his publishing company St Nicholas Music.
In his book White Christmas, Jody Rosen tries to explain why Jews – of all people – were the ones to modernize Christmas carols. He argues that in the commercialization of Christmas that erupted in post-war America, it required outsiders (read “Jews’) to transform Christmas into a grand festival of consumption. Others may argue that this was the way for highly assimilated Jews to demonstrate that they had become thoroughly American and thus accepted. I prefer to think that it was nothing other than the same Jewish musical creativity that had served the Western world for thousands of years expressed in the idiom of the day.
In any case, rather than fret over how Christmas music seems to dominate, rejoice in appreciating how we as a people have made it all possible.