On the origin of Christmas ditties


ANYBODY WRITING a history of American popular culture from the middle of the 20th century onwards will come across two striking facts. First, sentimental songs about the winter holidays, touching to a greater or (usually) lesser degree on the Christian story of the Nativity, became an important common denominator for a diverse nation. Second, the composers of these songs were in the great majority Jewish.

Take the most obvious example: “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas”. Written by Irving Berlin, who was born in Tsarist Russia as Israel Beilin, the song has been described as the most successful ever recorded. Released a few weeks after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, its seductive picture of “treetops [that] glisten” and “sleigh bells in the snow” would come as balm to nostalgic American soldiers and give their families a romantic image of a country that virtually all of them, regardless of ethnicity or creed, were now determined to defend. It idealised the country they were all fighting for. Bing Crosby reportedly said the hardest thing he ever did was to render that song to a crowd of moist-eyed American GIs in Europe in 1944, many of whom who would soon die fighting the Nazis.

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