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 that 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 Macabee.
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 Hanukkah by Sharon Jones and 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 by Louis Prima
This New Orleans musician and entertainer was a Catskill’s favorite. Prima also plays a key role in Big Night, starring Tony Shaloub and Stanley Tucci. You can’t call yourself a ‘foodie’ until you have 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 1st. 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 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 earworms! This is one of those songs that I look forward to hearing this year, preferable in a convenience store or supermarket.
Ocho Kandelikas by Erran Barron Cohen featuring Yasmin Levy
Yes, Erran, a highly respected musician, arranger, and producer in England, is Sascha’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.”
Blessing by Chance the Rapper
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.
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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.