Three Popular Christmas Songs That Were Written By Jewish Songwriters

Jewish songwriters created more than 50 per cent of the Christmas classics.

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. While Jewish people made up only about three percent of North America's population around 1950, Jewish songwriters created more than 50 percent of the Christmas classics.

The new CBC documentary, Dreaming of a Jewish Christmas, explores the stories behind the world’s most beloved Christmas songs. Stories that often began with the lives of Jewish immigrants arriving in North America, many who ended up in the music business.

Dreaming of a Jewish Christmas
The Real Story Behind Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

“From 1910 to 1940, popular music is dominated by Jewish composers. They’re writing all the love songs, they’re writing all the patriotic songs, they’re occasionally writing Easter songs. So of course, they’re writing Christmas songs.” — Rob Bowman, Ethnomusicologist, York University

Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!

It was a hot summer day in Los Angeles, 1945, when lyricist Sammy Cahn (born Samuel Cohen to Galician Jewish parents), and composer Jule Styne (born Julius Stein to Ukrainian Jewish parents), came up with their song Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Reportedly, Cahn wanted to escape the office and head to the beach, but Styne sat down at the piano to work on a melody he thought sounded “cool” instead.

According to Cahn:

I said to Jule, “Why don’t we go down to the beach and cool off?” He said, “Why don’t we stay here and write a winter song?” I went to the typewriter. “Oh, the weather outside is frightful, but the fire is so delightful, and since we’ve got no place to go, let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.”

Now, why three “let it snows”? Why not two? Because three is a lyric.

The two men started to trade stories about getting snowed in, and the result was a song about a couple trapped by a snowstorm who stayed warm by a fire. They are too much in love to say goodbye. In the end, the song was short — only 16 lines.  Some have joked that Cahn kept it that way because he was eager to get to the beach.

Finding someone to sing Let It Snow was easy. By 1945, Cahn and Styne had already received two Oscar nominations for I’ve Heard That Song Before and I’ll Walk Alone. They were a hot, up-and-coming songwriting team. The singer Vaughn Monroe had had a chart-topping hit that year with There! I’ve Said It Again and was looking to record something upbeat. The lyrics to Let It Snow reminded him of his snowy home in Pennsylvania. He jumped at the chance. The result was his second number one song that year.

Do You Hear What I Hear?

The husband and wife team of Nöel Regney and Gloria Shayne Baker wrote Do You Hear What I Hear? in 1962. Baker, born Gloria Adele Shain to a Jewish family in Brookline, Massachusetts, grew up next door to the Kennedys. 

The song was a reaction to the events of the Cuban Missile Crisis and meant as a plea for peace, written to her old neighbour and then U.S. president. 

A record producer asked Regney to write a Christmas tune, but Regney was reluctant because of the commercialism of the holiday. Heading home from the studio one day, however, he was inspired. “I saw two mothers with their babies in strollers,” Regney has said. “The little angels were looking at each other and smiling.” This led to the first line of the song, “Said the night wind to the little lamb…”

Regney normally wrote the music and Baker the lyrics for their songs, but for Do You Hear What I Hear? they switched roles. The song was released just after Thanksgiving, 1962, by the Harry Simeone Chorale, who had a Christmas hit with Little Drummer Boy. Do You Hear What I Hear? was recorded again the following year by Bing Crosby and became a hit again. 

Regney and Baker performed it themselves as well. However, Baker has said they could barely get through it without crying: “Our little song broke us up.”

It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year

George Wyle, born Bernard Weissman, was the choral director for the Andy Williams show in 1963 when he wrote It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year with Sidney Edward Pollacsek, otherwise known as the songwriter Edward Pola. Williams sang it on the second Christmas show he ever did, and the song became an almost instant classic. 

The lyrics were full of activities Wyle and Pola could relate to, even if they never celebrated Christmas themselves: hosting parties, visits from loved ones, roasting marshmallows and spending time with family.

Williams would go on to record the song for his very first Christmas album, The Andy Williams Christmas album, along with other Christmas classics composed by Jewish writers like White Christmas (Irving Berlin), Happy Holidays (Berlin) and The Christmas Song (Mel Tormé and Robert Wells). George Wyle would go on to even greater fame writing the theme song to Gilligan’s Island.

For the full story watch, Dreaming of a Jewish Christmas.

Visit Dreaming of a Jewish Christmas official website

Available on CBC Gem

Dreaming of a Jewish Christmas

documentary Channel