The Magazine



I'm a pushover for Christmas. The older I get, the more I realize I like everything about Christmas. I like the exalted sacred side of Christmas, and the sentimental, secular aspect as well. I like the annual satirizing of the crass commercialization of Christmas, as in "A Charlie Brown Christmas," and, truth be told, I like the crass commercialization, too.

Not surprisingly, the annual War Against Christmas strikes me as particularly perverse. Who would be so Grinch-like as to not find something enjoyable about Christmas?

The movement to turn Christmas into That Which Must Not Be Named is usually attributed to America's "increasing multicultural diversity." But a loathing of Christmas is hardly widespread among blacks and Hispanics. A recent poll cited in Tom Piatak's article last week found that 96 percent of Americans celebrate Christmas.

In a department store in Beverly Hills last week, I engaged in what has become my seasonal subversion strategy. When a Latino or African-American clerk would dutifully wish me a store management-required "Happy Holidays," I'd reply "And Merry Christmas!" and watch their faces light up.

Almost no African-Americans despise Christmas, despite all the institutional momentum behind Kwanzaa, a holiday whose invention by black radical and murderer Ron Karenga was subsidized by J. Edgar Hoover to divert support from the Black Panthers.

Has anyone in Kwanzaa's 36 years of bureaucratically-promoted existence ever written a sincere Kwanzaa song that is not intended to indoctrinate defenseless children?

The best known Kwanzaa song I can find is "Kwanzaa Timmy," sung by Tim Meadows and the Kwanzettes on "Saturday Night Live" in 1998:

Kwanzaa Timmy:

Tell that fat old bearded dude

He's living in the past, he

Only knows who's been bad or good,

But I know who's been nasty!"


"Hey, Kwanzaa Timmy,

Whatcha gonna gimme?"

In contrast, there's the overwhelming richness of the Christmas songbook, both carols and pop songs.

Pop songwise, most of the 20th century Christmas hits we hear this time of year were written between 1934 and 1958. They keep alive the higher standards of songwriting that prevailed before rock music made youth, self-expression, and authenticity more important than craftsmanship. Tin Pan Alley was the commercial heir to the great Continental musical tradition, with its incomparable mastery of technique.

(Rock and roll, in contrast, began as the rebellion of the indigenous wild men of the southern Mississippi River Valley, such as Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, and Jerry Lee Lewis, with their Anglo-Celtic-African musical traditions, against the professionalism of the New York City songwriting industry.)

And, strange as it may seem during today's War Against Christmas, a very large fraction of the best Christmas songs were written by Jews.

For example, looking at a fairly recent ASCAP list of the most played Christmas pop tunes, it appears to me that of the top ten songs, Jews wrote five and co-wrote two more. Out of the top 25 songs, Jews were involved with at least 11 and possibly more. Here was the top ten:

1. White Christmas—Irving Berlin (Jewish)

2. Santa Claus is Coming to Town—J. Fred Coots (Jewish) and Haven Gillespie

3. The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)Mel Torme (Jewish) and Robert Wells (Jewish)

4. Winter Wonderland—Felix Bernard and Richard B. Smith

5. Rudolph the Red-Nosed ReindeerJohnny Marks (Jewish)

6. Sleigh Ride—Leroy Anderson and Mitchell Parish (Jewish)

7. Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas—Ralph Blaine and Hugh Martin

8. Silver BellsJay Livingston (Jewish) and Ray Evans (Jewish)

9. Let it Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow!Sammy Cahn (Jewish) and Jule Styne (Jewish)

10. Little Drummer BoyKatherine V. Davis, Henry V. Onorati and Harry Simeone

The Christmas songs that Jews wrote seldom involved religion, and some were simply ditties about cold weather, but nobody thought to label them generic "Holiday" tunes.

Songwriters, and their bank accounts, appreciated having their efforts associated with the most popular day of the year. There's no market for songs about snow in January!

Very lucrative royalties can be earned from a popular Christmas song—for example, one-hit-wonder Elmo Shropshire, a retired veterinarian, still makes $80k annually from having written half of the novelty tune "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer" in 1979. You might think that would encourage contemporary tunesmiths to come up with new Christmas hits.

But there are a lot of things our culture can't seem to accomplish anymore, no matter how much money is available. So it's hard to tell whether Jews are still willing to write Christmas songs since nobody at all is writing Christmas songs that catch on anymore.

Fortunately, our culture can still make some halfway decent Christmas movies—for instance, 2003's Elf, with Will Ferrell as the North Pole's most overgrown worker. While hardly comparing to It's a Wonderful Life (but then what does?), Elf is still a modest delight. The Jewish Journal of Los Angeles reports:

Both are written and directed by persons of the Jewish faith. "Elf" is directed (Jon Favreau), written by (David Berenbaum) and has stars (James Caan, Edward Asner) who are Jewish—a feat that parallels the success of the 1954 White Christmas (Michael Curtiz, Norm Krasna and Danny Kaye, respectively).

Favreau, by the way, is Italian on his father's side and Jewish on his mother's side, and says he "keeps a Jewish home."

2002's "Santa Clause 2" was a funnier film than you would expect and made a deserved pile of money because it featured G-rated jokes that adults enjoyed. Its director, Michael Lembeck, is Jewish, as would appear to be some of its many writers.

On the other hand, Robert Zemeckis, director of last year's slow-motion Christmas hit The Polar Express, is, to the surprise of many, of Polish Catholic background. And the big three behind 2000's How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Dr. Seuss, Ron Howard, and Jim Carrey were not Jewish.

It will be interesting to see if Jews continue to make Christmas movies.

Going back to the 19th Century, German-Jewish department store owners played a significant role in promoting several modern Christmas traditions in America. Some of our more prominent customs, such as the Christmas tree, came from Germany (Franklin Pierce in the 1850s was the first President to have a Christmas tree), and Jews were important purveyors of German culture in America.

But this long, amiable tradition of Jews helping to enliven a Christian feast day seems, sadly, to be drawing to an end. American Jews, those exemplars of successful assimilation now seem to be de-assimilating emotionally, becoming increasingly resentful, at this late date, of their fellow Americans for celebrating Christmas.

Veteran TV writer Burt Prelutsky wrote a column last week entitled The Jewish Grinch who Stole Christmas:

I never thought I'd live to see the day that Christmas would become a dirty word… And I blame my fellow Jews. When it comes to pushing the multicultural, anti-Christian agenda, you find Jewish judges, Jewish journalists, and the American Civil Liberties Union, at the forefront.

Being Jewish, I should report, Christmas was never celebrated by my family. But what was there not to like about the holiday? To begin with, it provided a welcome two-week break from school. The decorated trees were nice, the lights were beautiful, It's a Wonderful Life was a great movie, and some of the best Christmas songs were even written by Jews.

But the dirty little secret in America is that anti-Semitism is no longer a problem in society—it's been replaced by a rampant anti-Christianity.

There's nothing uniquely Jewish about ethnic groups de-assimilating. Human beings compete for status, and the most natural way to organize groups in this struggle is along lines of family relationship.

Nor should it be unexpected that as groups feel increasingly secure, they come to resent slights to their ancestors more than their ancestors resented slights to themselves. That Irving Berlin could make millions off "White Christmas" seemed to Jews in 1942 like a wonderful tribute to America when contrasted with what was happening to Jews elsewhere. To an increasing number of Jews in 2005, however, that Berlin had to write a song about Christmas to have his biggest hit apparently illustrates the unfairness and oppressiveness of American majority culture.

African-Americans have similarly been de-assimilating too, losing interest in facets of American culture that they can't dominate. For example, in sports, blacks have largely stopped playing baseball, the national pastime, in order to concentrate more on the sports where they have a larger competitive advantage: football and, especially, basketball.

But these examples of de-assimilation should give us pause about assuming that newer immigrant groups will automatically assimilate seamlessly. Hispanics, for example, may seem to many whites today to be perfectly content in servile jobs. But will future generations of Latinos seem so accepting of their lot in life?

Seen in this perspective, the decline of the American Christmas is intimately linked to the decline of America.

Originally published December 11, 2005