All I’ve ever wanted for Christmas is a mainstream Hanukkah song.
Enjoying the winter holiday season as a Jew can be difficult when it feels like there is no music for you to sing on the radio, when the candles of the menorah feel overshadowed next to the bright lights on the tree that is Christmas, and when all you want is to see is your culture represented in the mainstream.
Growing up, I wished that I celebrated Christmas — mainly because of the music. Christmas music is a joy to listen to, evoking emotions of gratitude, happiness and comfort. It’s also unavoidable and catchy; the inescapable tunes created a seasonal, winter bucket list that I could never take on. I wanted to “kiss under the mistletoe” or go “caroling out in the snow,” or even watch “chestnuts roasting on an open fire.” Even though Hanukkah was always around the same time, the Festival of Lights didn’t have the same musical pull as Christmas on me.
As a proud Jew, I can’t help but feel guilty when I listen to Christmas songs. I feel I should be embracing music that celebrates my religion and my culture. Plus, in modern America, Hanukkah basically has the same appeal as Christmas: food, presents, games, yummy desserts, loved ones.
Yet, when I try to think of a popular, classic Hanukkah song that equates to that of “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” the main one that comes to mind is “Hanukkah O’ Hanukkah.” It’s the bare minimum when it comes to inclusion in the holiday season. There’s also “I Have a Little Dreidel,” the “Jingle Bells”-esque Hanukkah song for young children. I have fond memories from my childhood of both songs, but as an adult, I have difficulty relying on them to get me into the Hanukkah spirit. These songs do not have the same widespread appeal as a Christmas song, nor do they create and build excitement for the holiday season in the same way.
Ironically, Jewish singer-songwriters wrote so many of the Christmas classics we know and love today. Why couldn’t just one of them turn their songwriting attention to the Festival of Lights?
Jews made Christmas songs essentially for the vibe (and the money). I know these songs are not so much religious as they are about the values and the imagery they set forth. For example, “White Christmas” by Irving Berlin is less a tribute to Christmas than it is an ode to America. Berlin, who is most famous for “White Christmas” and “God Bless America,” was born Israel Baline in Russia. We can view his music as pure fun, but there’s also the fact that Berlin — the son of a cantor — wrote a Christmas song, as if to assimilate into majority culture. Berlin’s daughter would later say that he loved the family holiday aspect of Christmas, and felt grateful to America for lifting him out of poverty, which is why he wrote his two famous songs.
But why does America have to be associated with Christmas? For Robert May, the poet who wrote “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” among many others, he seemed to come across the idea based on his own experience as an American Jew, though he never explicitly said so. “Suppose he were an underdog – a loser, yet triumphant in the end. But what kind of underdog? Certainly a reindeer’s dream would be to pull Santa’s sleigh,” May wrote of his experience writing the poem. May’s brother-in-law, Johnny Marks, also an American Jew, recorded the song and made it into a hit, having also recorded “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” and “A Holly Jolly Christmas.” Both May and Marks seemingly hid their Jewishness, yet it seeped through, with Rudolph’s nose appearing to reclaim the antisemitic tropes surrounding Jewish noses. For the two of them to write and record a Christmas song was to put their Jewishness second to their Americanness and prove that Jews, too, could contribute to the fabric of America, especially post World War II. By pulling Santa’s sleigh, they were helping to move America forward.
Judging the history of Jewish songwriters who wrote Christmas songs that we know and love, it’s helpful to appreciate how far Jewish representation has come. I am grateful that there are at least some Hanukkah episodes on TV, or a token Hanukkah song on a Christmas album. But is a Hanukkah song worth the fight for inclusion? Do we even need a popular Hanukkah song that non-Jews and Jews alike can enjoy?
My gut used to say yes. I thought we Jews are entitled to a popular, top 40 Hanukkah song that mainstream society could enjoy, an unavoidable banger like Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You.” I wanted to feel included in the winter holiday season, and to have a holiday song I could enjoy and relate to — a room of one’s own, if you will.
But as I began to think more and more about what a popular Hanukkah song would be like in our society, I had a change of heart. I realized, rooted in my desire for a popular Hanukkah song, is exactly what bothers me about Jewish songwriters writing Christmas songs: assimilating to mainstream culture.
Hanukkah is a minority holiday. Imagining non-Jews casually singing, “let’s have a party, we’ll all dance the hora” feels both cringey and appropriative. If we chose to model Hanukkah songs off Christmas songs, we would not have a holiday that is special to us or celebrates our strength amid adversity (can you imagine if we marketed Judah Maccabee as “Santa for the Jews?” At least we have the Holiday Armadillo!). Not to mention the inevitable antisemitism that would come out of it.
The holiness of Hanukkah is lost when we try to make it a copy of Christmas. Instead of having one main genre and formula, Hanukkah songs represent the diverse experiences of Jews celebrating the holiday. They don’t fit into one category and that’s what makes them special.
And there are Hanukkah songs in every genre — from Sharon Jones and the Dap King’s “8 Days (Of Hanukkah)” to Daveed Diggs’ “Puppy for Hanukkah.” We have our own Hanukkah prayers, which function as songs that can allow us to connect to God. We have Hanukkah songs in Hebrew, English, Yiddish, Ladino and so much more. Our music is for us. Just as it is a miracle for oil to last eight days, Hanukkah songs, when we find them, become a special way for us to connect with one another’s unique, Jewish experience. We may not hear them on the radio, but we can make them our own and celebrate them.
So, here’s my challenge for myself and other Jews who find this season difficult: Find a Hanukkah song that brings you joy and treasure it. Make that eight songs, so you have one for each night, a gift for yourself. (I’ll be claiming “A Week and a Day” by Boyz II Menorah, because nothing gets me into the Hanukkah spirit more than nice Jewish boys, especially if they can sing.)
Or you could take on the task my father has bestowed onto me each year when I complained about the lack of Hanukkah songs on the radio: Write your own and reclaim what the Jews before us have done for Christmas. Either way, there is music that we can enjoy and empower ourselves with, even though they may not be heard by the public and the majority. Rather, we can celebrate Hanukkah music — because it’s ours.