We’ve written many times about the strangely angry humorist Garrison Keillor. In his column this week, Keillor unleashed a torrent of angry humor directed at those who are spoiling his apparently devout celebration of Christmas. Foremost among the villains of Keillor’s column are Jewish composers of Christmas songs. Complaining about a Unitarian service featuring a rewritten version of “Silent Night,” Keillor taps into a more familiar animus:
Unitarians listen to the Inner Voice and so they have no creed that they all stand up and recite in unison, and that’s their perfect right, but it is wrong, wrong, wrong to rewrite “Silent Night.” If you don’t believe Jesus was God, OK, go write your own damn “Silent Night” and leave ours alone. This is spiritual piracy and cultural elitism, and we Christians have stood for it long enough. And all those lousy holiday songs by Jewish guys that trash up the malls every year, Rudolph and the chestnuts and the rest of that dreck. Did one of our guys write “Grab your loafers, come along if you wanna, and we’ll blow that shofar for Rosh Hashanah”? No, we didn’t.
Christmas is a Christian holiday – if you’re not in the club, then buzz off. Celebrate Yule instead or dance around in druid robes for the solstice. Go light a big log, go wassailing and falalaing until you fall down, eat figgy pudding until you puke, but don’t mess with the Messiah.
This is a passage over which I would like to pause. On the one hand, It isn’t funny, is it? On the other hand, It would probably be a mistake to take it too seriously, though I find it hard not to take it straight.
In America Jewish composers are in fact responsible for many extremely popular Christmas songs. One might reasonably ask why. I would guess that the outsider’s perspective fostered a kind of yearning and appreciation. Both the yearning and appreciation carry an appeal to the wider American audience, expressing the feelings of the audience in a peculiarly congenial manner. (Incidentally, Jeffrey Goldberg has now told “the true story of Orrin Hatch’s Hanukkah song.” Senator Hatch has composed a Hanukkah song with an outsider’s admiring perspective on the Jewish holiday.)
Though unmentioned by him, “White Christmas” is a prime example of the phenomenon Keillor decries. Composed by Irving Berlin, it is the most popular record ever in the version of the song recorded by Bing Crosby. Gary Giddins notes in Bing Crosby: A Pocketful of Dreams, that Crosby’s record of the song made the American pop charts twenty times, every year but one between 1942 and 1962. It must have spoiled many of Keillor’s Christmases.
Keillor alludes specifically to two songs by Jewish composers in the passage above. The first is “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” by Johnny Marks. Marks wrote three of the most popular Christmas songs of all time. The story of “Rudolph” originates in a poem about a red-nosed reindeer named Rudolph written by Marks’s brother-in-law, Robert May. Nate Bloom recounts that the poem became popular as a Montgomery Ward giveaway and Marks turned it into a song. When Gene Autry succumbed to Marks’ entreaties to record it, the song became a hit of monumental proportions in 1949.
The second song to which Keilor alludes is “The Christmas Song,” by Bob Wells and Mel Torme. This song is an evergreen. Unlike “Rudolph,” it hasn’t dated, or hasn’t dated much. I can’t imagine what about it might rub Keillor the wrong way. Is it okay for Jews to wish their Christian friends “merry Christmas”?
Nate Bloom has annotated a list of the 25 most popular Christmas songs compiled by ASCAP. Bloom sorts the Jewish from the gentile composers responsible for these songs. “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” is the product of an interfaith team. Does it escape Keillor’s curse? Probably not.
Reviewing Bloom’s list, it is hard to find much difference in the religious expression of the songs composed by Jews compared to the songs composed by Christians. Keillor’s focus should be on the audience rather than the composers. The animus expressed in Keillor’s column is both unfunny and misplaced.
The animus would more properly be directed at the American audience that has turned these songs into hits by buying them rather than at the religious or ethnic identity of their composers. At its root, Keillor’s animus is nondenominational in spirit. Keillor doesn’t like his fellow Americans very much, whether they are Jewish or Christian.
JOHN adds: I don’t know how to read those paragraphs either, but they’re appalling even if intended to be taken humorously. Is Keillor a devout Christian? Maybe so; it’s the first I’ve heard of it. In any event, I can’t imagine that he speaks for a single Christian other than himself if he seriously thinks that “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “White Christmas” and so on have somehow ruined Christmas. And why anyone would view the fact that these wonderful contributions to our culture were penned by Jews in anything but a positive light is inexplicable.
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