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Jewish Immigrants Wrote Some Of The Most Famous Christmas Songs. A Composer Explains Why13:20
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Rob Kapilow (Courtesy, Celebrity Series of Boston)
Rob Kapilow (Courtesy, Celebrity Series of Boston)

Composer Rob Kapilow explains how Jewish immigrants essentially wrote much of what might be considered the soundtrack to Christmas. He also breaks down some popular Christmas songs to help make sense of what makes them so catchy and timeless.

Interview Highlights

On the Jewish composers behind many Christmas songs

“One of the most amazing things I discovered was almost all of our most famous Christmas songs — the one that we've known for our all lives — were actually written by Jewish composers. I mean, that's a sort of a strange fact. That these songs that have become kind of the soundtrack of the world's most widely celebrated Christian holiday were all written by Jewish composers.”

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

Rob Kapilow

On why Jewish composers wrote many Christmas songs

“I think one of the things that's interesting is it's really a story about pogroms, prejudice, poverty, immigration, assimilation and the powerful creative imaginations of an extraordinary group of songwriters who are trying to find their way into an American culture. You know, first of all, lots of roads into American culture were blocked for these Jews, but they wanted to become part of that American world. And so what they did was they looked around, they listened around and they created the soundtrack of secular Christmas. You know, before that, really before 1941 and 1942, when we got 'White Christmas' — which was kind of the foundational sort of center of all of these secular Christmas songs — Christmas songs were religious.

"The holiday was really about Christ and it was a religious holiday, but it was really these Jewish composers who invented secular Christmas. But it wasn't only them. You know, interestingly enough, the term 'Judeo-Christian tradition' was actually invented by the military, who wanted to forge inter-religious bonding among soldiers. It became patriotic to celebrate Christmas. In fact, rabbis advocated Jews celebrating Christmas. And Franklin Roosevelt declared one day a year, only one day — Christmas day — as the day that the plants and factories would close in 1942. So it was all part of becoming American — assimilating — becoming part of that American dream. And it was Jewish composers who invented the soundtrack to Christmas.”

"It was all part of becoming American — assimilating — becoming part of that American dream. And it was Jewish composers who invented the soundtrack to Christmas.”

Rob Kapilow

On the song “White Christmas”

“Well, it is the foundational cornerstone. You know, before this piece, everybody thought, ‘Why write Christmas songs that would only be one day a year, seasonal songs? There'd be no money in it whatsoever.' … Publishers said, ‘Forget it. No one's interested.’ But this became the top selling piece of music ever written. And in fact, to come full circle, it's even been recorded in Yiddish.”

On what makes a great Christmas song

“Well, I think one of the things that's really important is it's different over time. You know, there's a wonderful quote from Irving Berlin and he says, ‘Songs make history and history makes songs.’ In other words, if you want to understand American history, listen to its popular song. If you want to understand popular songs, listen to its history. So oftentimes it's actually a moment in time that makes a great Christmas song. As I said, before ‘White Christmas,’ no one wrote seasonal Christmas songs. It just wasn't going to be interesting enough. But this song, it first appeared on a Bing Crosby radio program on Christmas Eve, 1941. No one paid any attention. It was two and a half weeks after Pearl Harbor. But then on that Christmas of 1942 — when it was the first Christmas with the G.I.'s away from home — suddenly this became the kind of ideal world that they were missing.

"It became everything they were fighting for, a kind of 'Why We Fight' anthem. It was what they were longing for. And suddenly it became a great Christmas song, not only because of the notes that I showed you, but because what it evoked at that particular moment in time. You know, when you hear other songs, sometimes we'll hear another song that happens at the end of the war, 1945. And then that's the song that touches the hearts and became the love ballad of the G.I.’s returning home. So at different moments in time, different songs intersect with history. And it's a combination of the magical notes, note by note, rhythm by rhythm that I've shown you. And that moment in time — and what the country needs — because these composers were inventing secular Christmas. Now they're the songs we hear everywhere. But remember, they were invented by Jewish immigrants trying to become part of the American dream, inventing America's voice.”

This segment aired on December 6, 2019.

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