Whether you light a menorah or hang mistletoe, you just can’t escape Christmas music. Ever since Irving Berlin wrote “White Christmas,” Jews have had a strange relationship with Christmas music. Me, too. Growing up, I liked many of the songs yet resented the imposition of a dominant religion. As a kid, I was uncomfortable with it not only religiously but musically, too. I thought much of it was just Muzak. But somehow, along the way, I began to discover some holiday music I thought was worth listening to. So, each year, I go scouring the music libraries for songs that make me reflect on the holidays and winter with nary a mention of Jesus or Judah Maccabee.
“‘Zat You, Santa Claus?” by Louis Armstrong
Jews take great pride in the story that Jewish neighbors befriended Louis as a young child and even gave him his first trumpet. Little did they know they would be launching the career of one of the most important musicians in American history.
“8 Days (of Hannukah)” by Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings
Even as she was fighting pancreatic cancer, soul singer Sharon Jones found the strength to record occasionally. This song was recorded in 2015, just a year before she died.
“Shake Hands with Santa Clause” by Louis Prima
This New Orleans musician and entertainer was a Catskills favorite. Louis Prima also plays a key role in “Big Night,” starring Tony Shaloub and Stanley Tucci. You can’t call yourself a foodie until you’ve seen it.
“I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” by Amy Winehouse
There are dozens of versions, but this bluesy bossa nova may be my favorite.
“River” by Joni Mitchell
With over 400 versions, this is the second-most-recorded Joni Mitchell song: “Both Sides Now” is first. This beautiful portrait of winter longing may be my favorite song of the season.
“If We Make It Through December” by Phoebe Bridgers
I just started listening to Phoebe Bridgers over the last year or so. Here she adds her own spin to this classic by country music outlaw Merle Haggard.
“Festival” by Kohane of Newark
Not every holiday song about home has to be idyllic. This song offers a powerful (rockin’ too) perspective on Hanukkah and home.
“Father Christmas” by The Kinks
No sugar plums or fairies in this tune. No cookies by the fireplace. Instead, we get crime and unemployment. Leave it to Ray Davies from The Kinks to remind us the holidays can be an even more difficult time for many families.
“Christmas Wrapping” by The Waitresses
Talk about ear worms! This is one of those songs I look forward to hearing this year, preferably in a convenience store or supermarket.
“Ocho Kandelikas” by Erran Baron Cohen featuring Yasmin Levy
Yes, Erran Baron Cohen, a highly respected musician, arranger and producer in England, is Sacha’s big brother. Yasmin is the daughter of Yitzhak Isaac Levy, a composer, singer and renowned researcher into the history of the Ladino music and culture of Spanish Jewry. Together, Yasmin and Erran transform this song by the legendary Flory Jagoda from simple to sultry.
“El Ano Viejo (A Good Year)” by Celia Cruz
It was a good year for me since I discovered this song by legendary Cuban singer Celia Cruz. As the song explains, the singer won’t forget the old year because it “left me many good things. It left me a goat, a black mule, a white mare, and a nice mother-in-law.”
“Blessings” by Chance the Rapper featuring Jamila Woods
A Grammy Award-winning rapper, songwriter and social activist, Chance the Rapper rediscovered his faith when his daughter was born with health issues. A unique fusion of rap, jazz and gospel, Chance’s music is a blessing to us all.
I’d love to know what you think of this list! Just email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Here’s hoping your holidays are the happiest ever and that 2022 is a year of good food, great music and many blessings to you and your family.
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