An American Christmas Is A Beautiful Occasion For All
In 21st-century America, the music of Christmas represents peace, joy, and hope and has become a genre of its very own. My cousin, the psychiatrist Theodore Branfman, theorized that “Christmas time is filled with nostalgia, and we long to feel the ‘Christmas magic’ that excited us as children.” (Branfman, T. The psychology of sentimentality. Psych Quar 28, 624–634 1954).
If we combine this belief with the words of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, “Music is the universal language of mankind,” we can understand our delight when hearing the harmonious acappella of Christmas Carols at our doorsteps.
But contrary to common thought, Christmas in America was not always something to sing about.
The Pilgrims forbid any observance of Christmas—too much debauchery and promiscuity. Even after America’s independence, celebrations continued to be discouraged. Until the early 19th Century, Christmas was a raucous carnival, dreaded by the “upper class” and anticipated with trepidation by local authorities. Public celebrations were outlawed in Boston, and anyone exhibiting the Christmas spirit was fined five shillings.
In 1806, New York City’s Christmas Riots resulted “in-the-line-of-duty” death of public servant Christian Luswanger. In 1828, Gotham City’s Yuletide riots were so violent that New York City’s first paid professional police force was founded partially because of these heated hooligans.
There are complex sociopolitical theories for this oft-forgotten, post-pilgrim, pre-Grinch glitch in Christmas history, but most attribute its ill reputation to wintry weather, high unemployment, and class conflict.
Image by AI.
Then America boomed. The transcontinental railroad premiered, and Andrew Carnegie established our nation’s first steel mills. Rockefeller made energy affordable. Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison appeared on the scene. They introduced more than inventions; they pioneered a new American passion: Philanthropy.
As much as they competed to see who could amass the most, they also raced to see who could give the most away. Carnegie gave away more than 350 million dollars. Rockefeller? A whopping five hundred million. Translated into today’s market, this is well over one hundred billion dollars. We became both the envy and the pride of the planet.
By the late 19th century, fourteen million immigrants descended upon the land of opportunity—not to take advantage but to benefit from American liberties. As America’s melting pot simmered, Christmas was embraced like never before.
On June 26, 1870, Congress declared “the twenty-fifth day of December, commonly called Christmas Day,” a national holiday by an act of Congress. Although Jesus was born in the springtime, a fourth-century prophetic marketing decision by Emperor Constantine predicted that more people would embrace Christmas if it coincided with and then replaced prior pagan celebrations. Genius!
To practicing Christians, Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus and is steeped in religion. To those of us still awaiting Mashiach’s first visit, Christmas often coincides with Hanukkah and represents a time to appreciate all we have to be thankful for. We delight in the ease of scheduling festivities with family and friends while children are out of school and businesses are closed, and we strive to follow in the footsteps of the philanthropists.
And just when we were enjoying fun-filled frolics and funding of the food banks, some psychobabble socialists came out of the woodwork to invent controversy. The American Civil Liberties Union and others argue that Christmas traditions violate their Constitutional rights. (Bowler, Gerry, 2016. Christmas in the Crosshairs: Two Thousand Years of Denouncing and Defending the World’s Most Celebrated Holiday. Oxford University Press. p. 214. ISBN 9780190499013).
Over the past decade or two, Christmas celebrations have been banned in some Oklahoma schools, in Baldwin City, Kansas, schools, and in Eugene, Oregon, Municipalities. In 2014, in Montgomery County, Maryland, Muslim families succeeded in having “Christmas break” replaced with “Winter Break.”
America’s pseudo-sophisticated smug intellectuals seem to have studied abroad. The Soviet Union banned Christmas until 1936, and The People’s Republic of China has historically shut down churches and arrested their pastors to prevent them from celebrating Christmas.
Is lobbying to drive Santa Claus and his elves into extinction really a local priority while home-grown Islamic assassins have launched four lethal jihadist terrorist attacks in America since 9/11? Indeed, according to American-born Anwar al-Awlaki, “Jihad is becoming as American as apple pie.”
Seriously, is the celebration of Christmas a geopolitical threat, while, in the game of global group chess, the Russian King takes Ukraine, China’s Queen moves toward Taiwan, and Iran’s rooks and knights mercilessly wreak havoc on Western civilization?
Where was I? Oh, yes… For those of us proud to reside in the simmering melting pot of American culture and tradition, the Christmas season confirms America’s Judeo-Christian bond, and its music is a re-choir-ment.
Jewish composers’ prolific contributions to the “Christmas Spirit” include the most-recorded Christmas song, “White Christmas” by Russian Immigrant Irving Berlin, and “Sleigh Ride” by Mitchell Parish from Lithuania. “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” was written by J. Fred Coots, and who would guess that “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” was composed by Johnny Marks, whose notoriety also includes a Bronze Star and four Battle Stars during World War II. Marks also wrote “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” and “A Holly Jolly Christmas.”
The duo of Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne wrote “Let It Snow!” Felix Bernard composed “Winter Wonderland.” My personal favorite, “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire,” was written by Robert Wells and Mel Tormé. “Silver Bells” was written by Jacob Levinson and “There’s No Place Like Home for the Holidays” is by Bob Allen and Al Stillman. “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” was written by Walter Kauffman.
“Santa Baby” was written by Joan Javits and “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is by Frank Loesser. “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” was written by Ellie Greenwich, Jeff Barry, and Phil Spector and became a hit for Darlene Love in 1963. And for David Bowie’s Mother “Peace on Earth” was composed by Fraser, Grossman, and Kohan to form a medley with The Little Drummer Boy by Harry Moses Simeone, which Bowie recorded with Bing Crosby in 1977.
Back home in South Texas, my favorite Yiddishkeit yuletide tunes include “Christmas in Texas” and “Christmas in Jail,” both written by ten-time Grammy Award-winning Texas crooner, the legendary Ray Benson of Austin, Texas (previously known as Raymond Benson Seifert from Philly, Pa.)
…you get the idea?
My love and observance of our Jewish High Holy Days, as well as the celebrations of Sukkot, Hannukah, Purim, and Passover, is sacrosanct, but the task of coordinating these as family gatherings becomes difficult with my children’s and grandchildren’s migratory patterns presenting geographic challenges. With this in mind, Christmas time may indeed be “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year” (written by Bernard Weissman).
Do not misunderstand. I respect the pious religious significance of the Christian Celebration for Christians, and I would discourage Menorahs in the manger or a crucifix on my dreidel. For me, however, enjoying the “American Holiday” does not require me to practice Christianity any more than Labor Day requires me to join a union.
So, while I sit back and sip some Manischewitz while flipping latkes and lighting my Hanukkiah, my wife and I are thankful that schools are on winter recess and businesses are on holiday hiatus. With our ever-growing family in attendance, we will enjoy Peter Yarow’s “Light One Candle”, followed by one of Neil Diamond’s four Christmas Albums. I think even the Pilgrims would approve.
Wishing a Healthy Happy Hanukkah, a Very Merry Christmas, and a joyous and prosperous New Year to one and all.