Oy to the World: On Jewish Artists Singing Christmas Songs

Arye Dworken

By Arye Dworken

on 12.08.11 in Lists

Of all the sacrifices a Jew has to make in this very Christian country, one of them is being subjected to the month long immersion in Christmas songs. If osmosis took place through music, I’d be Santa Claus.

As Kyle on South Park so eloquently sang, it’s lonely being a Jew on Christmas, all the more so because of the lack of quality Hanukkah songs. It’s no secret the catalog is troublingly sparse. In fact, the only Hanukkah song anyone knows is the one by Adam Sandler. How depressing is that for our nearly 6,000-year-old religion? The Gentile masses are being educated on our Festival of Lights by the same guy who brought us Jack & Jill.

But who’s to blame for this dearth? Is it Irving Berlin for writing “White Christmas” instead of “White Chanukah?” Is it Neil Diamond’s fault for recording three Christmas albums? Or is it the Beastie Boys, for sampling Kurtis Blow’s “Christmas Rappin’” instead of rummaging through the Yiddish vinyl crates? Actually, it’s all their faults. And with the list below, I’m coming after the big offenders. They can sit there and count their generous December royalty checks or, if they’re interested, they can redeem themselves by taking me up on my Hanukkah song suggestions.

Barbra Streisand, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”

A Christmas Album

Barbra Streisand

The Complaint: Recorded in 1967, only four years after her debut, "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas" is from Bab's first Christmas album, titled A Christmas Album. The crazy thing is that it's not only one of Streisand's bestselling albums, it's one of the bestselling Christmas albums of all time. But no matter how hard she tries to impose a genuine WASPy feel to this track in particular, she still can't escape her Brooklyn-born Jewish inflect. And to add insult to injury, Streisand would record a Christmas album again in 2001, this time titled Christmas Memories. One wonders to whose memories she's referring. The Solution: Look, it's not that she's hiding the fact that she's Jewish she did Yentl, for God's sake. So why couldn't Barbra reprise her role as the titular Talmudic student in disguise and do something that sounded very shtetl-like? Maybe "Khanike Iz Freylekh," which translates to "Hanukkah is Happy," would work?

Twisted Sister, “Oh Come All Ye Faithful”

Twisted Sister

The Complaint: Let it be known that contrary to popular belief, Dee Snider, the singer and frontman of Twisted Sister is not Jewish even if most people are convinced that he is. I only know this because the guitarist for the band, Jay Jay French, lives across the hall from me. However, Jay Jay, also known as John French Seagall, is Jewish and he along with the band recorded a whole album's worth of Christmas material titled A Twisted Christmas. On this self-released outing, they amazingly combine "Oh Come All Ye Faithful" with "We're Not Gonna Take It." As far as Christmas songs are concerned, the irreverence of this one makes it palatable even to us Jews. And ending the song with a "Havah Nagilla" riff? We approve. The Solution: I've personally asked French to consider recording some Hanukkah material, but that was only a couple of weeks ago.

Bob Dylan, “Winter Wonderland”

Christmas In The Heart

Bob Dylan

The Complaint: Robert Zimmerman's off and on flirtation with Christianity is well-documented. It's even influenced a few of his albums, namely Shot of Love and Saved. But there's always been plenty of ambiguity about whether Judaism has influenced his music or not. While I'm inclined to say "No," there are Dylan scholars out there who say otherwise. In the case of Christmas In the Heart, though, there's no argument. "White Wonderland" from this well-intentioned album of all Christmas covers is the hardest of the lot to listen to. It's croaky and raspy, and you spend its entire three minutes wishing someone would just give the man a cough drop. The Solution: At this stage in his career, Dylan isn't likely to proclaim his Jewishness from the hilltops, but perhaps a recording of a non-denominational song would be nice something that everyone, regardless of affiliation, can get behind? And who wouldn't support a track about a small, Judaic-themed spinning top? Yup, a song about the dreidel is as perfect a theme for Dylan as any.

Ramones, “Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want To Fight Tonight)”


The Complaint: Jeffrey Ross Hyman, or Joey Ramone, wrote and recorded this song with his band for 1989's Brain Drain which, unlike many of the albums on this list, was not taken from a Christmas-themed album. Moreover, it was actually released on a record which hit stores on May 23rd Maybe releasing a Christmas song close to the summer is the epitome of punk rock? The Solution: The only band on this list incapable of a do-over due to the untimely passing of Joey, but I'd like to think that somewhere in Heaven, Joey is singing a Hanukkah song in the CBGB's in the sky.

Neil Diamond, “A Cherry Cherry Christmas”

Neil Diamond

The Complaint: Neil Diamond, unofficially known as the Jewish Elvis, has not one Christmas album. Not two Christmas albums. He has three Christmas albums: 1992's The Christmas Album, 1994's The Christmas Album 2, and 2009's unfortunately named A Cherry, Cherry Christmas. There's even a song of the same name, and it references a "sweet Carol-ine." Groan. Did I mention that there's even a sax solo? The Solution: Neil throws us a bone by ending A Cherry Cherry Christmas with a Hanukkah song. Sadly, though, it's a cover of Adam Sandler's "Chanukah Song" from 1995. What makes this aging crooner's rendition even more kitschy and awkward is hearing Diamond make an O.J. Simpson joke in 2011.

The Klezmonauts, “Joy to the World”

The Complaint: Christmas and Klezmer? Do I even need to elaborate here on how wrong this is? The Solution: Obviously, they could only resolve this by inventing a time machine, going back to the year 1998 and stop the recording process of this whole Klezmer Christmas album from ever happening. Then they would also have to record a whole album of Klezmer Hanukkah songs. Only then would the world be right again.

Guster, “Mamacita, donde Esta Santa Claus?”


The Complaint: Another repeat offender. The two main songwriters, Ryan Miller and Adam Gardner, both identify as Jews, yet they've inexplicably recorded two Christmas songs. Well, "Tiny Christmas Tree," was commissioned by Target and who can pass on a fat corporate check? but the other one "Mamacita, Donde Esta Santa Claus," which was originally recorded by Augie Rios in 1958, and then covered by Charo in 1978, is wrong on two counts. One, the Jewish rockers sing about the whereabouts of Santa, and two, during the chorus of "Donde", these boys from Boston sing in Spanish. Oy and Oi. The Solution: Congratulations, Guster! You are completely redeemed! One of your members Adam Gardner collaborated with Dave Schneider of the Zambonis to record a whole album devoted to Hanukkah called Hanukkah Rocks. Falling into a truly dearth category known as The Credible and Not Cringeworthy Hanukkah Song, this album is rather consistent and enjoyable. Consider my Guster Christmas complaint resolved!

Fountains of Wayne, “The Man In the Santa Suit”

Fountains of Wayne

The Complaint: Adam Schlesinger, one-half of the songwriting team behind Fountains of Wayne, recorded two Christmas songs with the band and included them on 2005's b-side compilation Out-of-State Plates. The first one, "I Want an Alien For Christmas," sounds bouncy, pleasant, and absolutely kid-friendly, but never play "The Man In The Santa Suit" for the kiddies. With lines like "Santa's sweaty and he smells like beer," it'll wake them to the cold hard reality of the Mall Claus. The Solution: You could tell me that Fountains of Wayne also included "Chanukah Under the Stars" on the 2005 compilation, but I would respond by telling you that a 15-second jokey lounge track that features the lyrics "Chanukah under the stars/ we're going to jump into the car/ and have a swinging Chanukah under the stars" doesn't count. However, if the band decided to release an extended version on the box set

Paul Simon, “Getting Ready For Christmas Day”

So Beautiful or So What

Paul Simon

The Complaint: Released this past year, Paul Simon's "Getting Ready For Christmas Day" from So Beautiful or So What album features a sample from Rev. J. M. Gates. It's sonically experimental for Simon but, as many critics pointed out at the time of its release, also very secular in nature. Simon's song, like most of his material, is actually more political than religious, despite the title's allusion to the holy day. But back in 1966, the songwriter, then one-half of the duo Simon & Garfunkel, ended the classic album Parsley, Sage, Rosemary & Thyme with "7 O'Clock News/Silent Night" which incorporates the popular Christmas carol. The Solution: Simon, a long-standing champion of the underdog, could write a song about Judah the Maccabee who rose up to the tyrant King Antiochus, despite being very much outnumbered. He could even recruit an African rhythm section for the track if he chooses.