I love Christmas music.
My friends assure me that this is an awkward admission. A secret shame. A private embarrassment. But it isn't. I assert it proudly, and hope to be a model for others. Some insist that my cheer is ironic: The holiday equivalent of a hipster's handlebar mustache. Wrong again. I'm more earnest than a Care Bear.
I am, of course, Jewish. But that's for the good. My private theory is that Christians take Christmas for granted. They don't understand what makes it unique. We Jews, however, do. Our holidays come in one of two flavors. The first, and most common, is a day of gratitude that our people were not annihilated that one time. The second is the ritualized admission of wrongdoing. Neither is a natural partner for cheer.
Which is why, just as only a Jew can properly appreciate bacon (the only thing that tastes better than pig is forbidden pig), only a Jew can truly understand the beauty of the Christmas spirit. I would submit, as evidence for this view, Israel Isidore Beilin.
Israel Isidore Beilin -- or Irving Berlin, as he came to be called -- was the product of czarist Russia and the son of a cantor (a professional Jewish liturgical singer). The Russian heritage didn't stop him from penning "God Bless America" and the religious upbringing didn't keep him from defining Christmas music as we now know it.
Berlin’s "White Christmas" – which would go on to sell 100 million copies and birth not only a genre, but, in certain ways, a wholly new holiday -- was not written in an oak lodge while the snowflakes fell. Rather, Berlin wrote it poolside at the Biltmore Resort and Spa, in Phoenix, Arizona. The next morning, he went to his office and grabbed his secretary. "Grab your pen and take down this song," he said. "I just wrote the best song I've ever written -- hell, I just wrote the best song that anybody's ever written!"
The song first appeared in the 1942 musical Holiday Inn, and was sung by Bing Crosby and Martha Mears. But "White Christmas" is not about Christ, nor even Santa. As Harold Meyerson has written, it ushered in the separation of church and song. It's about winter, and nostalgia. It remembered the Christmases of yesteryear, "the ones I used to know." What Crosby, or what Berlin, remembered, was entirely innocent and entirely secular. Treetops glistened, and children listened, for sleigh bells in the snow. It's an aural blanket, a cup of sonic cocoa on a cold day.
Freed from its sacred tether, Christmas music spun off into the evocative: "Let It Snow" recalls the final moments before the fire, when you're edging ever closer to the embers and dreading your eventual reentry to the bitter freeze outside. "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm" -- another Berlin composition -- limns the catalytic interaction between winter and romance. "I can't remember a worse December/Just watch those icicles form!/ Oh, what do I care if icicles form?/Oh, I've got my love to keep me warm."
The genre's animating nostalgia has only deepened as the years have passed. The songs became nostalgic in theme as well as fact. Every December, for a few weeks, the crooners rise from their graves, the past connects to the present, and we listen to the same music our parents heard, the same voices our grandparents remember. Bing Crosby and Gene Autry and Frank Sinatra and Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald and Dean Martin. That soft static in the background of the recordings is the song of continuity.
That, anyway, is what this Jew understands Christmas cheer to be. It warms the young man still chilled by the winters of Czarist Russia and welcomes even the cantor's child. In that, the holiday's essential nostalgia doesn't erase its insistent relevance: America's best ideals have remained constant across generations. Today's immigrants will find themselves absently singing along to tunes written by yesterday's immigrants, shoppers in red states will mouth the same classics as shoppers in blue states. It’s a holiday to which everyone can belong, which is why it took an outsider to define it. It's Christmas as understood, and thus presented, by Irving Berlin, and everyone participates. I'm an unabashed admirer.
My Top Five Christmas Songs:
Bing Crosby and Martha Mears: White Christmas
The song that started it all. The woman in the video, incidentally, isn't Martha Mears. It's Marjorie Reynolds, but Martha Mears' voice was dubbed into the recording.
The Peanuts Christmas Music
Bing Crosby might yearn for the Christmases of long ago, but the Peanuts Christmas special is what most children actually remember. Vince Guaraldi on piano produced one of the season's most classic interpretations.
Dean Martin: Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow
I could've put any number of Dean Martin renditions here, but Let It Snow is probably the most iconic.
Ray Charles and Betty Carter: Baby It's Cold Outside.
Ray Charles did many a duet in his day. This is his best.
Barenaked Ladies: Elf's Lament
I'm not trying to claim this as a classic, but you are reading The American Prospect, and this is far and away the finest labor-liberal Christmas song ever written.