Recently, over dinner, I was recounting the story about how when Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn wrote “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” (1945), they did so with the intention of writing a Christmas song that never actually mentions Christmas; and when one of my dinner companions expressed confusion, I pointed out that both men had been Jewish, which prompted her to ask if many contemporary Christmas songs had been written by Jewish people, which itself led to a bit of table-wide Googling.
Anyhow, having established that a great number of our most beloved Christmas classics were scored and penned by members of the Tribe,* the conversation moved to how so many Jewish singers have released Christmas albums (as well as one particularly amusing tangent involving the notion of a Chanukah song being penned by somebody not Jewish); but the conversation got me thinking about what the intersection of a Venn diagram might look like with sets depicting Jewish singers and Christmas songs penned by Jewish composers and/or lyricists.**
Putting aside the trove of Christmas albums from such Jewish mega-entertainers as Barbra Streisand [A Christmas Album (1967), Christmas Memories (2001), and The Classic Christmas Album (2013)], Barry Manilow [Because It’s Christmas (1990), A Christmas Gift of Love (2002), and In the Swing of Christmas (2007)], Bette Midler [Cool Yule (2006)], and 2020 Keep Memory Alive honoree, Neil Diamond [The Christmas Album (1992), The Christmas Album, Volume II (1994), A Cherry, Cherry Christmas (2009), Classic Christmas Album (2013), and Acoustic Christmas (2016)], because they have become standards for any holiday party jukebox; I dug a little deeper and hunted down some more esoteric examples.
So, here are some of my favorite takes on musical odes to the Christmas season that were both written by and performed by Jewish artists. It should be noted that in addition to the previously mentioned criteria, the song also had to have a video version on the YouTubes.
Sammy Davis, Jr. with Carmen McRae: “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”
Music and Lyrics by Frank Loesser (1944)
Since I’m writing this in Las Vegas, who better to begin the hit parade, than my favorite member of the Rat Pack, singing this classic Christmastime duet (the lyrics of which have been the subject of recent scrutiny) with the fabulous Carmen McRae?
Idina Menzel: “We Need a Little Christmas”
Music and Lyrics by Jerry Herman for the Broadway musical Mame (1966)
Then there’s this Holiday-themed Broadway gem from the sixties (a favorite of my “Bosom Buddy,” Jeffrey Tousey), as sung by one of today’s greatest Broadway stars.
KISS: “White Christmas”
Music and Lyrics by Irving Berlin (1942)
As anyone who’s read Guy Oseary’s Jews Who Rock (2001) can tell you, the two founding members of glam metal rock juggernaut KISS—Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley—are both practicing members of the Tribe. Also, who doesn’t love one of our greatest hard rock outfits having a merry-and-bright a cappella moment, on stage?
Alexa Ray Joel: “Santa Baby”
Music and Lyrics by Joan Javits and Phillip Singer (1953)
Sure, her mother is supermodel-cum-Prosecco princess, Christy Brinkley; but thanks to her “Piano Man” dad, Billy Joel, Alexa Ray Joel identifies as a “Proud Jewish New Yorker,” which adds another dimension to this tongue-in-cheek ode to the Season of Getting (originally written for Eartha Kitt).
Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass: “The Christmas Song”
Music by Mel Tormé; Lyrics by Robert Wells and Mel Tormé (1945)
I love an instrumental, and since neither Chris Botti nor Herbie Hancock is Jewish, and Kenny G has always kinda gotten on my nerves (I think it’s the hair), here’s the brilliant Herb Alpert’s jazzy take on the Velvet Fog’s timeless paean to Christmastime. I’m gonna dedicate this one to my mom, who (while Jewish) enjoys her Christmas Dinner, and always had a crush on the handsome Alpert.
Carly Simon: “I’ll Be Home for Christmas”
Music by Walter Kent; Lyrics by Kim Gannon and Samuel “Buck” Ram (1943)
Now, y’all know I enjoy a good controversy, and the lawsuit behind the credits of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” (wherein Buck Ram, whose poem and song of the same name inspired Kim Gannon’s lyrics, had to sue to get his name listed as co-writer) was decidedly not in the Christmas spirit. Also, this cover by Carly Simon is rather lovely.
Darlene Love: “Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home)”
Music and Lyrics by Jeff Barry, Ellie Greenwich, and Phil Spector (1963)
Not only was this song produced and co-written by the legendary Phil Spector (a musical wunderkind and certifiable whack-job, currently serving 19 years to life for the 2003 murder of Lana Clarkson); but it is sung by one of my very favorite singers, the incomparable Darlene Love (the main voice in Spector’s famed Wall of Sound, a 2011 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee, and a subject of the 2013 Oscar-winning documentary, 20 Feet from Stardom), who was invited to perform the song, by David Letterman, every year for more than a quarter-century--first on Late Night With David Letterman on NBC (1986-1992), then on Late Show with David Letterman on CBS (1993-2014)--except during the 2007 Writer's Strike (when they reran her 2006 performance). *** Add in that this song has been covered by everyone from Lady Antebellum, Jon Bon Jovi, U2, and Mariah Carey to Cher, Michael Buble, The Offspring, Smash Mouth, Death Cab for Cutie, and the late, great (and Jewish) Joey Ramone, and it's not hard to guess why "Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home)" topped Rolling Stone's list of The Greatest Rock and Roll Christmas Songs. And, yes, I realize that Darlene Love is not Jewish, but considering that she also sang my favorite Christmas spoof song, SNL's "Christmastime for the Jews," I have no qualms about her inclusion on this list.
So, as the song says, “Don ye now your gay apparel” (or, what I simply refer to as 'clothes'); and have a merry Christmas, a happy Chanukah, a joy-filled Kwanzaa, and whatever else you and yours might be celebrating this season. Zei gezunt!
Christmas Songs by Jewish Artists
Get into it!
[Editor’s Notes: * “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “A Holly Jolly Christmas,” “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” “Silver Bells,” “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” and “Sleigh Ride,” come to mind // ** For the purposes of this article, a Jewish person is someone who identifies as such; regardless of ancestry, parentage, or practice // *** After Letterman's retirement, Love's annual performance of "Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home)" was brought to The View on ABC (2015-present).]