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The Jews Who Wrote Christmas Songs


Well, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, this year it’s something new for Christmas (and Hanukkah): Jewish songwriters and performers of holiday (mostly Christmas) songs from new lists! And a lot of other neat stuff. I’ll explain.

Since 2006, yours truly has worked off of the American Society of Composers and Publishers (ASCAP) list of the top 25 holiday songs of a given year. This list is determined by a song’s radio airplay and only includes songs under copyright (in other words, no traditional carols).

I took this annual list, which most people would refer to as Christmas songs, and told you which of the songwriters were/are Jewish, and which of the musicians who played the most popular version of the song were/are Jewish.

This year, however, ASCAP changed how they are compiling their list. So, I am adding additional holiday song lists from Billboard magazine, with notes about that list.

Below you will see three annotated lists:

  • ASCAP’s 2010 list of the top ten holiday songs as of Dec. 15, 2010;
  • Billboard’s hot 30 holiday songs as of about Dec. 15, 2010;
  • Jewish Songwriters included on the Glee TV series 2010 Christmas Album (bonus!)

And, at the conclusion of this piece, an exciting new “hot” Hanukkah song and news about the surprising songs topping Billboard magazine’s digital comedy singles chart. (Bonus #2!)

List Number One: ASCAP Top Ten

Top Ten Holiday Songs of 2010 (as of Dec. 15, 2010), as determined by ASCAP. Popularity is determined by radio airplay. Radio airplay figures noted below.

1. Sleigh Ride
Played 111,759 times
Written by Leroy Anderson, Mitchell Parish Most popular version performed by Leroy Anderson

2. Winter Wonderland
Played 100,435 times Written by Felix Bernard, Richard B. Smith
Most popular version performed by Eurythmics

3. Jingle Bell Rock
Played 84,620 times
Written by Joseph Carleton Beal, James Ross Boothe
Most popular version performed by Bobby Helms

4. It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year
Played 81,221 times
Written by Edward Pola, George Wyle
Most popular version performed by Andy Williams

5. White Christmas
Played 70,975 times
Written by Irving Berlin
Most popular version performed by Bing Crosby

6. Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas
Played 66,916 times
Written by Ralph Blane, Hugh Martin
Most popular version performed by The Carpenters

7. It’s Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas
Played 66,190 times
Written by Meredith Willson
Most popular version performed by Bing Crosby

8. Frosty the Snowman
Played 56,755 times
Written by Steve Nelson, Walter E. Rollins
Most popular version performed by Jimmy Durante

9. Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree
Played 54,338 times
Written by: Johnny Marks
Most popular version performed by Brenda Lee

10. The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting…)
Played 54,087 times
Written by Mel Tormé, Robert Wells
Most popular version performed by Nat King Cole

Notes on the ASCAP 2010 List

As stated in my 2009 article on this same subject, which contains brief biographical sketches, the following songwriters/lyricists from the above list were Jewish (all are deceased):

  • Mitchell Parish (lyricist, “Sleigh Ride”);
  • Felix Bernard (music, “Winter Wonderland”);
  • George Wyle (music, “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year”);
  • Irving Berlin (words and music, “White Christmas”)
  • Johnny Marks (words and music, “Rockin Around the Christmas Tree”);
  • Mel Tormé and Robert Wells (words and music, “The Christmas Song”)

A few more notes on ASCAP 2010 List

Last year, I did a long profile of Irving Berlin as a sidebar to my article. You can read it here.

During the past year, I learned that songwriter Hugh Martin, now 94, is a devout Christian. He co-wrote “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”

Oh, and if you are not keeping a running tally, six of the top 10 ASCAP songs, above, were written or co-written by Jewish songwriters.

List Number Two: The Billboard Top 30 Holiday Songs of 2010

Billboard magazine determines the popularity of a holiday song based on a number of factors, including radio airplay and song sales (both downloads and “hard copy” sales).

During the holiday season (Oct.-Jan.), Billboard issues an updated list of the top 30 holiday songs about every ten days. At the end of a holiday season, they issue a list of the 100 hottest holiday songs of that season.

Here’s Billboard’s 30 Hottest as of Dec. 15, 2010:

1. Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree
Sung by: Brenda Lee
Written by: Johnny Marks

As noted above, and in previous articles, Marks is Jewish.

2. All I Want For Christmas Is You
Sung by: Mariah Carey
Written by: Walter Afanasieff, Mariah Carey

Neither Carey nor Afanasieff, her long time collaborator, is Jewish. However, Jewish musician and songwriter Kenny G was the best man at Afansieff’s wedding. Kenny G’s cover annually tops ASCAP’s list as the most popular version of “Silver Bells.”

3. A Holly Jolly Christmas
Sung by: Burl Ives
Written by: Johnny Marks (words and music)

Marks was Jewish.

4. Jingle Bell Rock
Sung by: Bobby Helms
Written by: Joseph Carleton Beal, James Ross Boothe

As noted in previous articles, I don’t know much about these songwriters beyond the place and dates of their births. This was the only hit for these songwriters.

5. The Christmas Song
Sung by: Nat King Cole
Written by: Mel Torme (music), Robert Wells (words)

As noted above, these two songwriters were Jewish.

6. It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year
Sung by: Andy Williams
Written by: George Wyle (music), Edward Pola (words).

As noted above, Wyle was Jewish.

7. Happy Xmas (War Is Over)
Sung by: John Lennon and Yoko Ono
Written by: John Lennon

Lennon was not Jewish.

8. Do They Know It’s Christmas?
Sung by: Band-Aid
Written by: Midge Ure, Bob Geldof

Geldof, who was raised Catholic, has one Jewish grandparent. His daughter, Peaches Geldof, is currently romantically involved with Jewish director/actor Eli Roth.

9. Feliz Navidad
Sung by: Jose Feliciano
Written by: Jose Feliciano

Feliciano is not Jewish.

10. Last Christmas
Sung by: Wham!
Written by: George Michael

Michael is not Jewish. About six years ago, a British Jewish journalist who runs a Jewish community website, wrote that Michael told him that his (Michael’s) mother was Jewish. The journalist reported this as fact and this “fact” pops up on the internet. Extensive research has disclosed that Michael was either kidding the journalist or the journalist misunderstood. Available biographical records conclusively show that Michael does not have a Jewish mother (or father).

11. Jingle Bell Rock
Sung by: Daryl Hall and John Oates
Written by: Joseph Carleton Beal, James Ross Boothe

As noted in previous articles, I don’t know much about these songwriters beyond the place and dates of their births. This was the only hit for these songwriters.

12. Sleigh Ride
Sung by: Leroy Anderson
Written by: Leroy Anderson, Mitchell Parish

As noted above, lyricist Parish was Jewish.

13. Wonderful Christmas Time
Sung by: Paul McCartney
Written by: Paul McCartney

McCartney is not Jewish. The ex-Beatle’s late wife, Linda Eastman, was Jewish, and McCartney has been dating an American Jewish woman since 2007 (Nancy Shevell, a cousin of journalist Barbra Walters).

14. White Christmas
Sung By: Bing Crosby
Written by: Irving Berlin (words and music).

As noted above, Berlin was Jewish.

15. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
Sung by: Gene Autry
Written by: Johnny Marks (words and music)

As noted above, Marks was Jewish.

16. Please Come Home For Christmas
Sung by: The Eagles
Written by: Charles Brown

Brown, an African-American blues singer, penned this song in 1960. He was not Jewish.

17. It’s Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas
Sung by: Johnny Mathis
Written by: Meredith Willson

Willson, most famous as the creator of The Music Man, was not Jewish.

18. Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town
Sung by: Bruce Springsteen
Written by: Fred Coots, Haven Gillespie

I still do not have much on Gillespie. This year I can confirm that co-writer Coots was of Irish background and was not Jewish. An article in the NY Times archive says he was Irish, and a personal acquaintance of the Coots family confirmed this.

Two members of Springsteen’s band are Jewish, keyboardist Roy Bittan and drummer Max Weinberg. Bruce Springsteen is not Jewish. He does, however, sometimes play Hava Nagila, the famous joyous Hebrew song, in concert.

19. Christmas Canon
Sung by: Trans-Siberian Orchestra
Written by: This song is a re-working of a classical music piece, with new lyrics (the classical piece is Pacabel’s Canon)

It is unknown if the writers from the Trans-Siberian Orchestra have Jewish ancestry.

20. O Holy Night
Sung by: Josh Groban
Written by: Adolphe Adam

Adam, a 19th century French composer, is sometimes erroneously reported to be Jewish or part Jewish. This is not true. It is my understanding that Groban’s father was born Jewish, but converted to Christianity upon marrying Groban’s Christian mother.

21. It’s Beginning To Look Like Christmas
Sung by: Bing Crosby
Written by: Meredith Willson

Willson, most famous as the creator of The Music Man, was not Jewish.

22. Merry Christmas Darling
Sung by: The Carpenters
Written by: Frank Pooler, Richard Carpenter

The Carpenters were made-up of the late Karen Carpenter and her brother, Richard. Neither were/are Jewish. Pooler, this song’s co-writer, also is not Jewish.

23. Happy Holiday/The Holiday Season
Sung By: Andy Williams
Written by: Irving Berlin (words and music)

Berlin was Jewish.

24. Blue Christmas
Sung by: Elvis Presley
Written by: Billy Hayes and Jay W. Johnson

I know little about these obscure songwriters (Hayes and Johnson).

Presley was not Jewish. Yes, some sources repeat a tall tale that Presley’s third cousin told 20 years ago to a Jewish biographer of Presley. This cousin said that he and Presley shared a very remote Jewish maternal ancestor (a woman who lived in the early to mid 1800’s)

This biographer did no further checking on this cousin’s story. She just reported it as “fact.”

A detailed check of available records shows that this maternal ancestor was not Jewish. Presley and his parents did share a two-family house in Memphis, Tenn. with a poor Orthodox rabbi and his family in the early ’50s.

I spoke to the daughter of this rabbi. Her mother, the rabbi’s wife, and Presley’s mother, Gladys, were close friends. Gladys, her mother told her, never said a word about any Jewish ancestor. Her mother said that if Gladys had any knowledge of any Jewish ancestor, the mother was sure Gladys wouldn’t have hesitated to mention it.

Presley worked for the rabbi’s family, doing tasks Jews were not permitted to do on the Jewish Sabbath. He did this for free. The rabbi, in turn, did things like lend Presley his record player and arrange for a summer camp trip for Presley. When Presley hit it big, he made a major donation to the rabbi’s religious school.

As I often tell people, the true story of the lovely relations between this rabbi’s family and the Presley family is a more important and meaningful story than a story about Presley having a remote Jewish maternal ancestor.

25. The Little Drummer Boy
Sung by: The Harry Simeone Chorale
Written by: Harry Simeone, Katherine K. Davis, Henry V. Onorati

I know that Davis, writer of the original 1941 version, was not Jewish, but I don’t know about Onorati or Simeone, who adapted the song for the Harry Simeone Chorale & Orchestra in 1958. I have strong clues, however, that the two gentlemen were not Jewish.

26. Winter Wonderland
Sung by: Eurythmics
Written by: Felix Bernard (music) and Richard B. Smith (words)

As noted above, Bernard was Jewish. It is unknown if Smith had Jewish ancestry.

27. Little Saint Nick
Sung by: The Beach Boys
Written by: Brian Wilson, Mike Love

Neither Wilson, nor his cousin, Love, is Jewish.

Wilson’s ex-wife, and the mother of his children, Marilyn Rovell Wilson, is a secular Jew. Most people will be surprised to learn that there was one Jewish member of the band, who drifted in and out of the group, but was not with them when this song was recorded. His name is David Marks. His biography is on this link.

Marks is the son of a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother. Some time back, he told my friend, oldies’ DJ Mike McCann, that he identified as Jewish.

28. Where Are You Christmas?
Sung by: Faith Hill
Written by: James Horner (music), Will Jennings (lyrics), Mariah Carey (lyrics)

As noted above, Carey is not Jewish. I simply don’t know about Jennings.

Horner, 57, is a top film music composer and the winner of two Oscars for his songs/scores. His works include the score for Titanic and the hit song, “My Heart Will Go On.” “Where Are You Christmas” was written for the film version of How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000) (not to be confused with the famous ’60s TV version).

Horner’s father, Harry Horner, an Austrian Jewish set designer, traveled to the United States with Max Reinhardt, the famous Austrian Jewish theater director, to put on a theater spectacular (The Eternal Road) about the history of the Jewish people. The Nazis marched into Austria in 1938, when the play was being presented in America. Harry remained in America and he married James’ mother, a member of a prominent Canadian Jewish family, in the 1950s.

29. Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!
Sung by: Michael Buble
Written by: Sammy Cahn (words), Jule Styne (music)

As noted in previous versions of this article, both Cahn and Styne were Jewish. Michael Buble is not Jewish.

30. Here Comes Santa Claus (Down Santa Claus Lane)
Sung by: Gene Autry
Written by: Gene Autry, Oakley Haldeman

Autry was not Jewish. Incomplete information indicates Haldeman was not Jewish either.

Again, if you are not keeping a running tally, 11 of the 30 songs above were written or co-written by Jewish songwriters.

Gleeful Christmas

On Nov. 9, 2010, the cast of Glee, the hit TV series, released a Christmas song album entitled “Glee, The Music, The Christmas Album.” It has done very well as an album and several songs released as singles have also sold well. Those singing on the album include Glee stars Lea Michele, who is the daughter of a Jewish father and a Catholic mother, and Dianne Agron, who is Jewish.

Six of the twelve album songs are traditional carols. Four of the six modern holiday songs on the album were written by Jewish songwriters.

There’s a fantastic version of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” on the album. This hot tune was written (words and music) by Frank Loesser in 1949. Loesser, who was Jewish, is most famous for writing the musicals Guys and Dolls and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.

Also on the Glee album is “We Need A Little Christmas,” from the musical Mame. It was written (words and music) by Jerry Herman, 79, who is Jewish. Herman was a 2010 winner of the Kennedy Center Honors and you can see him receive his award on CBS on Tuesday, Dec. 28, at 9 p.m. (McCartney is also a Kennedy Center Honoree this year).

The lesser-known Marks tune, “The Most Wonderful Day of the Year,” from the 1964 animated TV version of Rudolph, is on the Glee album.

But my favorite song on the Glee album, in terms of an interfaith story, is “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch.” This song was written for the 1966 animated TV special How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

The lyrics were written by the late Ted Geisel, better known by his pen name, Dr. Seuss. Geisel, of course, wrote the children’s book that the Grinch special was based upon.

Geisel, in real life, was a good and generous man. The son of German Lutheran immigrants, he was an ardent opponent of the Nazis, penning a series of anti-Nazi cartoons just before and during WWII. When he found out, in the ’50s, that Jews couldn’t buy homes in his San Diego neighborhood, he led a community-wide campaign to end this shameful discrimination.

Knowing this, it is somehow appropriate that the composer of the song’s music was Albert Hague, a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany. In the interest of brevity, I urge you to just click over to Hague’s NY Times obituary and read about his dramatic life and his embrace of his Jewish heritage in America.

Some of you may remember Hague as an actor. He played the elderly and very cranky music teacher in the hit original film version of Fame (1980). He reprised this role in the1980s TV series based on the film and also called Fame.

Bonus: Hanukkah Tops the Charts!

One Hanukkah song made the Billboard list of the hottest 100 holiday songs of 2009: Adam Sandler’s original “Chanukah Song,” which came out in 1994. It is #42 on Billboards top 100 Holiday Songs of 2009.

But this year, two Hanukkah songs are on top of a different Billboard chart (as of Dec. 18, 2010).

Sandler’s original “Chanukah Song” tops the Comedy Digital Track Chart and a new song, “Candlelight,” by the Maccabeats, is #2.

With Adam Sandler’s “The Chanukah Song” and Maccabeats’ “Candlelight” at numbers 1 and 2, respectively, on Comedy Digital Tracks, Chanukah-themed titles monopolize the top two positions on a Billboard songs survey for the first time.

Happy Holidays to All!

Nate Bloom

Nate Bloom writes a weekly column on Jewish celebrities, broadly defined, that appears in the Cleveland Jewish News the American Israelite of Cincinnati, the , Detroit Jewish News and the . New Jersey Jewish Standard. It also appears bi-weekly in j., the Jewish news weekly of northern California. Starting April 2012, a monthly version of his column (featuring relevant “oldies but goodies”) will appear in the following Florida newspapers: the Jewish News (Sarasota and Manatee County), the Federation Star (Collier County) and L’Chayim (Lee and Charlotte counties). The author welcomes questions and celebrity “tips,” especially about people you personally know. Write him at


Author: Nate Bloom