Friday, November 25, 2011

Observing Christmas


Now that Thanksgiving is over, we can all expect to hear a lot of Christmas songs for the next month or so.  Even though I'm basically a secular Jew, I don't mind hearing music about the holiday I don't celebrate every year.  The songs are mainly non-religious, anyway--the American ones, at least: they're all about snow and Santa and sleighs and whiteness.  And that makes sense: most of them were written by Jews.

Here's a funny line from "Operation Shylock," by Philip Roth, which bears this out: “The two holidays that celebrate the divinity of Christ--the divinity that’s the very heart of the Jewish rejection of Christianity--and what does Irving Berlin do? He de-Christs them both! Easter he turns into a fashion show and Christmas into a holiday about snow.”  Those two songs are "Easter Parade" and "White Christmas," by Irving Berlin.  And they're great. 

I'm often surprised by the number of Jews who wrote the songs that Americans take for granted.  But the Jewish sensibility (along with the homosexual, as Susan Sontag points out in "Notes on Camp") underpins a huge swath of American culture.  And though I can't really imagine Irving Berlin writing a great song about Hanukkah, or Passover, or Yom Kippur, I can understand why he might have wanted to profit from that yuletide cheer.

Of course, the Jews have got some great songs from "Fiddler on the Roof," but they're mainly lugubrious and parodic--not on the same level as the Aleinu, or Kol Nidre, which was actually featured in "The Jazz Singer," though I'm not sure if many viewers at the time knew what song Al Jolson was singing.  

In a 2005 op-ed piece for the New York Times titled "A Beginner's Guide to Hanukkah," the Jewish writer Jonathan Safran Foer wrote, in reference to Christmas Spirit: "Window displays are always more attractive than the gifts you receive--even if you receive what was in the window. Jews engage Christmas in its ideal form: from the outside. Unspoiled by family friction, or commerce, or anxiety about the wrong gift, we can experience the purest spirit. Someone else's spirit that we compose music for. And look at from the other side of the window. Christians should envy us envying them."

He's joking, but he does have a point.  I've seen it from both sides, though.  Because my mom celebrated Christmas with her Christian grandmother as a child, she wanted me and my brother to experience the holiday as we grew up, too.  (We also celebrated Hanukkah, which must have been quite expensive for my parents.)  But when I was in fourth grade, we stopped celebrating, I think mainly because we had to choose one holiday in the end.  And because my dad had once had a fit when we put decorative candles in the windows, it made more sense to stick with the menorah. 

I remember waking up that first morning without Christmas and feeling this sort of emptiness.  There was no anticipation; you end up just lying in bed--no presents under the tree, no tree--and then that sort of tension becomes the thing.  All of your friends are celebrating Christmas, so you can't do anything.  America basically folds in on itself for a day of cozy warmth.  In an inverse way, though, it brings a non-Christian family together, and creates another sort of yuletide tradition, one that most Jews practice every year: going out for a movie and Chinese food.

Anyway, there really aren't any good American Hanukkah songs that I can think of.  Tom Lehrer's farce, "I'm Spending Hanukkah in Santa Monica," is the only tune I've been able to find--aside from the well-known children's songs, and Adam Sandler's famous number--about the holiday.  And all those popular songs by Jews are good, but one of my favorite Christmas songs happens to be a jazz rendition of the German carol "O Tannenbaum."

Vince Guaraldi (not a Jew) switches the song's time measure from three to four, which makes for some sturdy swing.  His solo is lush and lyrical and sweeping.  You don't have to like Christmas or winter or Charlie Brown to enjoy it.  You just have to like this form of jazz. 

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