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Thursday, July 28, 2022

July 28, 2022: Christmas (Songs) in July: Hanukkah Songs

[On July 30, 1942, Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” was released. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy Crosby’s classic and other Christmas and holiday songs, for a little flavor of the season here in mid-summer!]

On a handful of classics, old and new, to celebrate the Festival of Lights.

1)      I Have a Little Dreidel” (1927, maybe): As with some of the classic Christmas songs about which I’ve written in this series, this canonical Hanukkah song likely goes back to traditional melodies well before the 20th century. But the first known version in English was written by Samuel Grossman (lyrics) and Samuel Goldfarb (music) in 1927, a moment that reflects the expanding cultural and social voices and roles of Jewish American artists throughout the first decades of the 20th century. And who doesn’t like to play the dreidel?!

2)      Light One Candle” (1982): The next song in my list is considered the first modern American Hanukkah song (in part because its singer framed it with the dearth of such songs), but the folk group Peter, Paul, and Mary have it beat by more than a decade. They wrote and started performing in concert “Light One Candle” in 1982, in response to that year’s Lebanon War, and then recorded it on their 1986 album No Easy Walk to Freedom. Pulling together traditional stories with current events would become one main thread for Hanukkah songs, and PPM seem to have inaugurated that tradition too.

3)      The Chanukah Song” (1994): PPM’s Hanukkah song was certainly popular, but there’s no doubt that the first modern one to really hit and stay in the cultural zeitgeist was Adam Sandler’s, first debuted in that hyperlinked performance on Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update. Partly that’s due to SNL, partly to Sandler’s rapidly rising star at the time, and partly to the song’s undeniable combination of humor and shock value (“O.J. Simpson…not a Jew!”). But I would say that Sandler’s opening statement, about growing up Jewish and only having Christmas carols to sing in school, is a serious and thoughtful take on multicultural America—and a nice rejoinder to the whole “War on Christmas” nonsense to boot.

4)      Miracle” (2011): I’ve written elsewhere in this space about the Jewish American rapper and reggae artist Matisyahu, a consistent and truly thoughtful commenter on both current events and questions of identity. “Miracle” is one of a couple Hanukkah songs he’s released, along with the following year’s more fun and low-key “Happy Hanukkah” (2012). What I particularly like about “Miracle” is how it pulls together threads I’ve highlighted with the other songs here: engagement with current and world events, representations of Jewish American and multicultural identity, and a sense of Hanukkah’s traditions and meanings. Like everything Matisyahu puts out, it’s a great song that transcends any individual occasion—but it’s worth a listen every Hanukkah for sure.

5)      8 Days (of Hanukkah)” (2015): Former corrections officer turned Gospel singer turned leader of the soul and funk band Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, Sharon Jones was a singular force in 21st century American music, one taken from us much too soon (yet another thing to add to the list of horrific effects of Donald Trump’s presidency). The band’s last album released while Jones was alive was 2015’s It’s a Holiday Soul Party, and as any 21st century holiday album should, it included a wonderful Hanukkah track. In Jones’ honor, just as much as to celebrate the Festival of Lights, turn this one way up, here in July and all year long.

Last holiday song tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other holiday songs you’d analyze?

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