11 Iconic Christmas Songs That Were Written By Jews – Kveller (2022)

It’s the most wonderful time of the year —you know, the one where we’re completely inundated by Christmas songs and carols at every turn? While some of us may cringe at just how dominant this Christian holiday seems to be each and every December — and that’s true whether or not there’s a pandemic going on — it is hard to deny how catchy and joyful some Christmas music can be.

Here’s something you may not realize about these ear worms: Many of the most iconic Christmas songs of all time were written by Jewish composers.

Wait — but, why? Well, there are a few theories about why Jews threw their weight behind Christmas songs. As singer and pianist Michael Feinstein, known as the “Ambassador of the Great American Songbook,” told Religion News Service, Jews flocked to the music industry early in the 20th century — when most of the American Christmas classics were written — because it was one of the rare industries in which Jews didn’t face rampant antisemitism. Rabbi Kenneth Kanter, an expert in Jews and pop culture at Hebrew Union College, added that this embrace of Christmas music was a type of assimilation to America’s dominant Christian culture as well as a form of patriotism for Jewish composers. “These songs made Christmas a kind of national celebration, almost a patriotic celebration,” he said.

Whatever the reason, there’s no doubt that these Jewish masters brought a whole lot of neshama — Hebrew for “soul” — to their compositions, ensuring themselves an enduring legacy in American music history. From sentimental tales to comical near-misses, read on to learn the Jewish backstories ofsome of the most popular Christmas tunes you hear today.

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1. “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire” by Mel Torme

This classic, jazzy tune, was written by pop-jazz singer Mel Torme, a Jewish singer nicknamed the “Velvet Fog.” Born in 1925 as Melvin Howard Torme, Mel grew up in the South Side of Chicago in a working class Jewish family. A musical prodigy who started singing professionally at age 4, Torme performed alongside Frank Sinatra and spent most of his storied career singing jazz. (Children of the ’80s may best know Torme as the obsession of the sitcom Night Court’s main character, Judge Harry Stone.) Torme collaborated with another Jewish lyricist, Robert Wells, to write his most famous composition: “The Christmas Song,” better known as “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire.” The song was popularized in 1946 by the iconic singer Nat King Cole.

2. “Let it Snow” by Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne

Lyricist, songwriter, and musician Sammy Cahn was born Samuel Cohen in 1913. The child of Galician Jewish immigrants, he grew up New York City’s Lower East Side. Cahn kickstarted his fruitful songwriting career by adapting a Yiddish musical theater song “Bei Mir Bist Du Shon,” into English for the Andrews Sisters. Later, Cahn partnered with another Jewish composer in Hollywood, Jule Styne, with whom he wrote holiday hit “Let it Snow” (as well as the Broadway musical High Button Shoes). This song gets a gold star because, despite its general wintry cheer, it doesn’t actually reference Christmas at all! Cahn eventually garnered four Oscars, and among his most prominent work is the 89 songs he composed for Frank Sinatra, which later earned him a spot in the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1972.

3. “Santa Baby” by Joan Javits and Phil Springer

This suggestive, tongue-in-cheek tune was written by two Jewish composers, Joan Javits and Phil Springer. Springer grew up in a very musical family: his mother, Sylvia, was a professional pianist and his father Mordechai, a lawyer by profession, was also musically inclined. (Javits, now Joan Javits Zeeman,lives in Palm Beach, Florida with her chihuahua mix named Foxy Lady.) While Springer told the Los Angeles Times in 2017 that he doesn’t know why the song endured so much, there can be no denying that when songstress Eartha Kitt recorded the track in 1953, the song became a sexy Christmas song for the ages.

4. “It’s The Most Wonderful Time of the Year” by George Wyle and Eddie Pola

The brainchild of another dynamic Jewish duo, “It’s The Most Wonderful Time of the Year” was written by George Wyle and Eddie Pola. Wyle, born Bernard Weissman, began his career playing piano professionally in the Catskills. He went on to eventually co-write the theme song to Gilligan’s Island. Pola, born Sidney Edward Pollacsek to Hungarian Jewish parents, grew up in New York City. The two collaborated on the song in 1963, and it became a hit when Andy Williams sang and produced it that same year.

5. “Silver Bells” by Ray Evans and Jay Livingston

Yet another dynamic Jewish duo! This jazzy tune was written by Ray Evans and Jay Livingston. While the song doesn’t center any religious aspect of the holiday, it does celebrate the festive winter spirit as Christmas approaches. While Livingston grew up in a Jewish family in MacDonald, Pennsylvania — and Evans in Salamanca, New York — the two met and became musical partners at University of Pennsylvania. A fun, lesser-known fact about this iconic song? It was almost called “Tinkle Bells!” Fortunately, Livingston’s Jewish wife, Lynne Gordon, was aware of the double entendre of “tinkle” and persuaded her husband to change it.

6. “White Christmas” by Irving Berlin

Irving Berlin — who may be most famous for his patriotic hit, “God Bless America” — was born Israel Baline in Russia. Along with his family (including his father, a cantor), he immigrated the U.S. in 1893, where they lived on the the Lower East Side of New York City. The Jewish Standard reports that Berlin’s daughter said that it was her father’s gratitude for America — the country that brought his family out of poverty — that fostered an appreciation for Christmas as an American family holiday. Thus, he wrote “White Christmas” in 1947 as another patriotic homage to this country and its distinctly American Christmas traditions.

7-10. “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” “A Holly, Jolly Christmas,” and “Silver and Gold” by Johnny Marks

Johnny Marks grew up in an affluent Jewish family in Mt. Vernon, New York — yet clearly he had a particular knack for Christmas tunes! Marks, who was born in 1909, formed the St. Nicholas Music company in 1949, where he wrote some of the most popular Christmas carols of the modern era, including “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” “A Holly, Jolly Christmas,” and “Silver and Gold.” Quite an impressive portfolio for someone who did not celebrate the holiday! Here’s another fun fact: According to multiple sources, “Rudolph,” which was co-written with Robert Louis May (another affluent, suburban New York Jew!) actually represents the ostracism May felt growing up as a Jew with a large nose.

11. “Walkin’ In a Winter Wonderland” by Felix Bernard and Richard B. Smith

This December-themed celebration of snowfall was written by Jewish composer and conductor Felix Bernard, along with his non-Jewish colleague Richard B. Smith. The story behind these lyrics is touching: Smith wrote the poem “Winter Wonderland” in 1934 while being treated in the West Mountain sanatorium for tuberculosis. His sister, Marjorie said he was inspired by the freshly fallen snow in the park to write this song. While Bernard took the menschy approach of getting the song published that same year, Smith sadly died the following year at age 34. This joyful song lives on as a beautiful legacy for Smith.

Header image by SENRYU/ Getty Images

FAQs

What famous Christmas songs were written by Jews? ›

It is well-known that White Christmas was written by Irving Berlin who was Jewish. What is less well-known is how many other Christmas songs were written by Jewish writers: The Christmas Song, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Silver Bells, Winter Wonderland, I'll Be Home for Christmas and more.

Are Christmas songs written by Jews? ›

While it only seems natural that Christmas songs would be written by those who actually celebrate the holiday, many popular Christmas songs were actually written by Jewish people. Contrary to popular belief, many popular Christmas songs were actually written by Jewish people.

Are most Christmas songs written by Jews? ›

On the Jewish composers behind many Christmas songs

"Almost all of our most famous Christmas songs — the one that we've known for our all lives — were actually written by Jewish composers."

Who wrote the most popular Christmas songs? ›

Regarded as one of the most iconic American composers of all time (he wrote “God Bless America” after all), Irving Berlin is the mastermind behind not only the most successful Christmas song of all time, but one of the most successful songs in music history, period.

What do Jews say instead of Merry Christmas? ›

Some attempt to mitigate the issue by saying “Happy Holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas.”

What do Jews do for Christmas? ›

The Jews do not celebrate Christmas as their religious holiday. It is because this day marks the birth of Jesus Christ, the figure whose birth and death are the most essential aspects of Christian theology. In Judaism, the birth of Jesus of Nazareth is not a significant event.

Why are all Christmas songs written by Jews? ›

As singer and pianist Michael Feinstein, known as the “Ambassador of the Great American Songbook,” told Religion News Service, Jews flocked to the music industry early in the 20th century — when most of the American Christmas classics were written — because it was one of the rare industries in which Jews didn't face ...

Do Jews believe in Christmas trees? ›

Sarna said rabbis across the spectrum viewed the Christmas tree as a symbol from which Jews should stand apart, while many Christian faith leaders opposed the idea of a secular Christmas and urged Jews not to put trees in their home, fearing that “Christ” would be taken out of Christmas, Sarna said.

Do Jews believe music? ›

Music is used in direct religious worship at the Synagogue by virtually all Jewish denominations in the form of unaccompanied vocal recitation, Biblical cantillation and sung prayers whose content is explicitly liturgical. These traditions are governed by the Chazan (cantor), the Synagogue prayer leader.

Do Jews have their own Christmas? ›

First: Christmas is not a Jewish holiday at all. Not even close (and before you ask, no Hanukkah is not a Jewish version of Christmas). December 25th is just another normal day on the Jewish calendar.

What is the number 1 Xmas song of all time? ›

According to the Guinness Book of World Records, "White Christmas" by Bing Crosby is not only the best-selling Christmas/holiday single in the United States, but also the best-selling single of all time, with estimated sales in excess of 50 million copies worldwide.

What is the oldest popular Christmas song? ›

Regardless, the oldest Christmas songs we know about are religious. St. Hilary of Poitiers composed the Latin carol “Jesus refulsit omnium” (“Jesus illuminates all”) in the fourth century, presumably after the first recorded Christmas celebration (336 A.D.).

What is the most iconic Christmas song of all time? ›

White Christmas by Bing Crosby is the most famous Christmas song of all time and no playlist is complete without it. It was penned by Irving Berlin but owes its popularity to Bing Crosby who sold 50 million copies of this tune since 1942.

What is Santa Claus called in Israel? ›

In Bethlehem, 'Baba Noel' Delivers Christmas Gifts To Palestinian Children In the Holy Land, Santa doesn't come down the chimney or wait till kids are asleep to deliver presents. "Baba Noel" or Father Christmas hops out of a red van and makes house calls while they're awake.

What is the Hebrew name for December? ›

The Hebrew Months
NameTime According to Gregorian calendarJewish Holidays
HeshvanOctober – November
KislevNovember – DecemberHanukah
TevetDecember – JanuaryTevet 10 Fast
ShvatJanuary – FebruaryTu Bishvat
8 more rows

Can Jews eat pork? ›

Both Judaism and Islam have prohibited eating pork and its products for thousands of years. Scholars have proposed several reasons for the ban to which both religions almost totally adhere. Pork, and the refusal to eat it, possesses powerful cultural baggage for Jews.

Can Jews drink alcohol? ›

Jewish tradition permits controlled alcohol drinking, whereas Muslim tradition prohibits the use of any alcohol. Increasing exposure of the traditionally conservative Arab sector to the Western culture of modern Israel might impact on and be reflected in the drinking patterns of these two populations.

Can Jews eat sushi? ›

Varieties of sushi that are considered kosher foods are widely available. Most favorite forms of sushi, such as tempura rolls, sushi rolls, and other combinations may be considered kosher. Red dragon rolls and caviar rolls may kosher products. Vegetarian rolls are typically kosher as well.

Why do Jews get Chinese on Christmas? ›

There's a longstanding tradition of Jewish families in Canada and the U.S. going out to eat Chinese food on Dec. 25. The custom dates back to at least 1935, when the New York Times mentioned a Chinese restaurant owner bringing chow mein to a New Jersey Jewish children's home on Christmas Day.

Do Jews hang wreaths? ›

Wreaths are not a major motif in Judaism, but Jews used wreaths as holiday decorations and wedding accessories even in antiquity, when the Temple stood in Jerusalem. Although today wreaths are strongly associated with Christmas, Jews made wreaths for Shavuot and other festive occasions before the birth of Jesus.

What color Christmas lights do Jews use? ›

“Hanukkah bushes” akin to Christmas trees can be found in many Jewish homes; string lights in blue and white rather than green and red are strewn on houses.

What do Jews eat at Christmas? ›

There's a longstanding tradition of Jewish families in Canada and the U.S. going out to eat Chinese food on Dec. 25. The custom dates back to at least 1935, when the New York Times mentioned a Chinese restaurant owner bringing chow mein to a New Jersey Jewish children's home on Christmas Day.

Can Jews have tattoos? ›

Answer: The Torah forbids us from tattooing our bodies. Nonetheless, one who has had tattoos can still be buried in a Jewish cemetery. The source of this prohibition is Leviticus 19:28: “You shall not etch a tattoo on yourselves.

Who do Jews believe is God? ›

Traditionally, Judaism holds that Yahweh, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and the national god of the Israelites, delivered the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, and gave them the Law of Moses at Mount Sinai as described in the Torah.

What do Jews like to eat? ›

The typical components of the traditional Jewish meal include gefilte fish, chicken soup with matzo balls (also called Kneidlach), brisket, roasted chicken, a potato dish such as kugel or latkes and tzimmes. Like many “Jewish” foods, the Jewish meal components are Ashkenazi as they originated in Eastern Europe.

Why do Jews not celebrate birthdays? ›

Some pious Jews refrain from celebrating birthdays, because among the Biblical figures only Pharaoh has his birthday celebrated and Jews are forbidden to follow the customs of ancient Egypt. When someone has died, the family observes the anniversary of the death.

Do Jews eat Chinese on Christmas Day? ›

Chinese food itself was accepted because many Jews believed (or chose to believe) that egg rolls and their ilk were kosher. “There are no Christian symbols on the walls,” Plaut said. “There's no mixing of meat and dairy, and the pork that is evident is hidden. Hence the phrase 'safe treyf.

Why do Jehovah's Witnesses not celebrate Christmas? ›

Witnesses do not celebrate Christmas or Easter because they believe that these festivals are based on (or massively contaminated by) pagan customs and religions. They point out that Jesus did not ask his followers to mark his birthday.

What are the top 10 most famous Christmas songs? ›

The Top 10 greatest, most heart-warming Christmas songs of all time: Listen
  1. 'White Christmas” by Bing Crosby.
  2. 'Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas' by Judy Garland. ...
  3. 'The Christmas Song' by Nat King Cole. ...
  4. 'Silent Night' by Bing Crosby. ...
  5. 'I'll Be Home for Christmas' by Elvis Presley. ...
1 Dec 2021

What is the least famous Christmas song? ›

The Most Hated Christmas Songs of All Time
  1. "The Christmas Shoes," NewSong. ...
  2. "Wonderful Christmastime," Paul McCartney. ...
  3. "Do They Know It's Christmas?," Band Aid. ...
  4. "The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don't Be Late)," Alvin and the Chipmunks. ...
  5. "Dominick the Donkey," Lou Monte. ...
  6. "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus," The Jackson 5.
9 Dec 2020

Who has had 3 Christmas number ones? ›

Spice Girls also notched up three consecutive Christmas Number 1s: 2 Become 1, Too Much and Goodbye all reigned the festive rundown from 1996–1998.

What was the first Christmas song to reach number 1? ›

It is the one and only Christmas song to reach the number one spot on the charts. It remains the only #1 Christmas song on any U.S. singles record chart totaling performance of all records. "The Chipmunk Song" was #1 on Christmas Day in 1958.

What are the Top 5 selling Christmas songs of all time? ›

The list that rounds out the top 10 is as follows: Crosby's “Silent Night,” 1933, $30 million; Mariah Carey's “All I Want for Christmas is You,” 1994, $16 million; Gene Autrey singing “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer ” brought in $12 million in 1949; the Band Aid song “Do They Know It's Christmas” (for famine relief ), ...

Why were so many Christmas songs written by Jews? ›

As singer and pianist Michael Feinstein, known as the “Ambassador of the Great American Songbook,” told Religion News Service, Jews flocked to the music industry early in the 20th century — when most of the American Christmas classics were written — because it was one of the rare industries in which Jews didn't face ...

What holiday was Jingle Bells originally written for? ›

It was written by James Lord Pierpont (1822–1893) and published under the title "The One Horse Open Sleigh" in the autumn of 1857. It has been claimed that it was originally written to be sung by a Sunday school choir for Thanksgiving, or as a drinking song.

What was Dwight's Christmas song? ›

Midway through the party, Dwight enters the conference room and sets up his own speaker system to play "Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24", a heavy metal medley of traditional Christmas songs performed by Savatage and the Trans-Siberian Orchestra.

Who wrote a Hallelujah Christmas? ›

Written by Cohen — a Jewish Buddhist — the song was first associated with Christmas in 2010, when Britain's Got Talent sensation Susan Boyle included it on her 2010 holiday album, The Gift, which hit No. 1 on both the Billboard 200 and on the Official U.K. Albums Chart.

Do Jews believe in Christmas? ›

First: Christmas is not a Jewish holiday at all. Not even close (and before you ask, no Hanukkah is not a Jewish version of Christmas). December 25th is just another normal day on the Jewish calendar.

When was the oldest Christmas song written? ›

Regardless, the oldest Christmas songs we know about are religious. St. Hilary of Poitiers composed the Latin carol “Jesus refulsit omnium” (“Jesus illuminates all”) in the fourth century, presumably after the first recorded Christmas celebration (336 A.D.).

What does Christmas mean in Hebrew? ›

חג המולד khag ha`molad. This is the Hebrew word for 'Christmas'.

What is the oldest Christmas song? ›

Jesus Refulsit Omnium is often cited as the oldest known Christmas song in the world. Like many of the first Christmas songs, “Jesus Refulsit Omnium” is a Christian hymn. The hymn was composed in Latin by St. Hilary of Poitiers sometime in the fourth century.

Who wrote the first Christmas song? ›

Christmas Day itself has been marked as a day of celebration in the calendar since 336 AD, and it is in the decades after this that the Christian poet Prudentius (348-405) wrote the hymn 'Corde natus ex parentis'.

What is the name of the horse in Jingle Bells? ›

The horse does not have a name. Often misheard as “Bells on Bob's tail” or “Bells on Bobtail,” as if Bob or Bobtail is the horse. Bobtail refers to the style of the horse's tail, cut short or gathered up and tied in a knot, as see in dressage events.

What does Dwight say in German? ›

Example: Jim: "Did you ever think that because you own the building, everyone in it — we're all kind of like your children." Dwight: "You know, there's a phrase about that in German: Bildenkinder. Used almost exclusively by childless landlords to console themselves."

What song did Billie Eilish write for Dwight? ›

Eilish's "My Strange Addiction" features lines taken from season seven, episode 17 of "The Office." On the episode, the Dunder Mifflin employees watch a film made by Michael Scott titled "Threat Level Midnight." In the movie, he plays a former secret agent named Michael Scarn and his coworkers appear as various ...

What does Belsnickel mean in English? ›

The name Belsnickel literally means Saint Nicholas in furs, says Sarah Thayer of the Lehigh Valley Heritage Museum. The crotchety Belsnickel was a forerunner of the modern day Santa. "All the traditions are interwoven," Thayer says. "He was one of the traditional Pennsylvania German gift bringers.

What religion is Hallelujah? ›

hallelujah, also spelled alleluia, Hebrew liturgical expression, usually rendered in English as “praise the Lord.” It appears in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) in several psalms, usually at the beginning or end of the psalm or in both places.

What is the true meaning of Hallelujah? ›

In the Hebrew Bible, it is a compound word, from hallelu, meaning “to praise joyously,” and yah, a shortened form of the unspoken name of God. So this “hallelujah” is an active imperative, an instruction to the listener or congregation to sing tribute to the Lord.

What Bible story is Hallelujah about? ›

In Hallelujah, for example, Cohen refers to the biblical story of King David who, according to Talmudic legend, delights angels and sages when he privately plays his harp at night. He is tested by God when – on his roof – he sees Bathsheba bathing. After committing adultery with her, David has her husband killed.

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