More Holidays: Dec 26th – Boxing Day, Wren Day, St Stephen’s Day

Today is, in many countries of the British Commonwealth of Nations, a holiday. Known by several names, particularly in England it’s called “Boxing Day.” Where did this come from? It’s not clear, truth be told. The concept of giving gifts to servants and other hired hands goes back centuries. Some claim that the deeds of Good King Wenceslaus in the song the origin. The Good King sees a peasant who is gathering fire wood in a snowstorm. He’s also travelled  a very long way to find it and so must return the long way carrying his load. Wenceslas was actually Duke of Bohemia in what today would be the Czech Republic. The day of the events in the carol is the Feast of Stephen- St Stephen’s Day, Dec. 26th – Boxing Day. Wenceslaus gives the poor man food and drink, and probably allows him to warm himself by the fire. Indeed, Wenceslas is considered a saint, and after his murder in 935 (by agents of his own brother (Boleslav the Cruel!) he was instantly considered saintly and a martyr. A cult grew up in Bohemia, and in England, around his legend and his legendary generosity. Was he truly that generous? We don’t know really. But, since the carol was written as late as 1853 and the holiday predates that, it isn’t the origin.

The “boxing” appendage could refer to a couple of things: the boxes given to servants on the day after Christmas containing gifts, bonuses, perhaps left-over wine and food. The original re-gifting….

Or, it relates to the breaking open of the alms box, the poor box at the churches that contained money collected through the year for the needy of the community.

What it doesn’t refer to is pugilistic pursuits, unless there’s a fight breaks out over the re-gifted beverages I suppose.

And in Ireland, it’s Wren Day today. Today, Wren Boys dress up in straw outfits and parade through town with a (fake) wren bird on a pole. In centuries past, it was a live wren hunted, affixed to the pole, and later killed. That tradition is no more, lucky for the bird. They’re accompanied by mummers and musicians playing traditional Irish tunes, and as they sing songs they collect money. The money is used to have a dance that evening. There is no clear history of the origins of Wren day, or of the wren’s specific symbolism. There are legends of the wren’s song having disrupted some Irish battles, and of the wren having represented the past year. Whatever its origins, it’s a holiday that predates the Christian St Stephen’s Day.

However you plan to spend this day, please find time to be generous to someone or something. Perhaps I’ll share my smoked trout with the cat.

Must go.

Rudolph and Johnny

As I was saying,

We continue our investigation of famous Christmas song lyricists and composers who also happened to be born in the Jewish faith. We now turn our attention to a fellow who might have been more associated with Christmas songs than any other composer: Johnny Marks. Johnny Marks was born in Mount Vernon, NY. He studied music in college, even went to Paris.

Mr. Marks wrote a number of popular, and pop, Christmas songs. I’ll bet you have heard, and probably sung, at least one of them. You have if you’ve ever sung Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.

Rudolph –

The words were from a poem written by his brother-in-law Robert L. May, and Mr. Marks provided the music. The original idea for Rudolph was pitched by Mr. May, an advertising copy-writer for Montgomery Wards. “Monkey Wards” as it was sometimes called, was a huge catalogue sales company at the time. Every holiday season they gave away coloring books. Finally, in 1946 they decided to make their own rather than buy them from someone else and Bob May got the job. Several million were distributed, and Bob May was (due to the generosity of Montgomery Wards) allowed to retain the copyright.              Bob and Johnny thought it would make a great song, and Johnny Marks set about making a melody.

Selling the song-

They had a bit of trouble trying to get anybody to sing it. Bing Crosby turned it down, as did Dinah Shore, the most popular male and female vocalists of the time. Finally Gene Autry, the singing cowboy, agreed. Good thing, too. It went on to become the biggest hit of Autry’s career with millions of sales every year. The only other holiday song to outsell it is, of course, White Christmas. Indeed, sales of that single recording made all three men very wealthy!

Mr. Holiday Music –

The success of that song convinced Johnny Marks to start his own publishing company for his songs. He named it Saint Nicholas Music. What sort of songs did he concentrate on, do you think? Hmmmm. Maybe…Christmas Songs? Right you are!

Johnny Marks went on to write some of the most memorable Christmas songs, at least for the Baby Boomer Generation. He set to a beautiful melody the poignant words of H.W. Longfellow’s “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”; Brenda Lee had a huge and enduring hit with Marks’s “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree”; and, of course, the songs he is best known for – the entire score for the 1964 animated special “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer”. Yep, that’s right, all those songs. Have a Holly Jolly Christmas, The Most Wonderful Day of the Year (Island of Misfit Toys), We Are Santa’s Elves, Silver and Gold, We’re a Couple of Misfits.

Mr. Marks was Mr. Christmas Music in so many ways. He was also a WWII hero with a bronze star and 4 battle stars.

Oh, yeah, and he was jewish.

What a wonderful world!

Oops. There’s my taxi. Must go. More later.




Connecting Christmas Music and Dreidels: Irving Berlin and White Christmas

As I was saying.

Having torn the calendar page of the American Thanksgiving holiday, the Christmas Holiday Season begins in all its fierce glory. Oh! Can you hear it?!? The sound of cash registers beeping, with a counterpoint of bell ringers for the Salvation Army hoping for a bit of the sale’s leftover change? Lovely. Music to our ears to be sure.

Speaking of music, there are many songs of this season that have become nearly, well, anthems of the holidays, particularly of the Christmas Holiday. I have been known to listen to, and perform them, myself. During December I’d like to talk just a bit about a few of them, and those scribes who invented them, since their origins are rather interesting. How many of you knew that these songs were often composed by artists who were not, actually, Christian? Read on.

White Christmas

This song is perhaps the anthem of the holiday, at least one that was written as a popular tune and not as a hymn. Made famous by the singer Bing Crosby, it has sold more single recordings than any other song. Ever. More than 50 million copies. Maybe as high as 100 million. The writer? A dizzyingly talented fellow named Irving Berlin, born Israel Isidore Baline, a Russian Jewish immigrant who came here as a little child with his family in 1893 to escape persecution in Russia. He was already famous as the author of many popular songs when he penned White Christmas. But, there is a story that Irving Berlin claimed “it’s the best song I ever wrote, maybe the best song anybody ever wrote.” It was certainly very, very popular, in large measure due to its release by the great Crosby and the fact that WWII was underway. Yet, Irving’s story is one of survival, talent, and determination. How else could it be that he would have ever been in the position to write White Christmas, get it performed by the most popular singer of the day, when he himself could not even read or write music, and could barely play the piano, and then in only a single key?

Firstly, I will announce that I am totally indebted to the wonderful book As Thousands Cheer, the Life of Irving Berlin, written by Laurence Bergreen, author, for much of what follows. It’s a good book. Get it and read it.

Irving Berlin grew up on the streets of New York City’s lower east side, a land of immigrants and crowded tenement dwellings. From a young age he spent most of his time on the streets since there was nearly no room in the small apartment. Their home was on the 3rd floor of a brownstone house originally designed as a single home, now partitioned into many small dwelling units. His family, 8 in all – mother, father, 4 girls and 2 boys – shared but 3 rooms. And, they took in a renter to help save money! Can you imagine it? Nine people living day and night crammed into a trio of small spaces in a smelly, unsanitary fire-trap of a building. No wonder he lived on the streets. It was that, or the roof.

His family was desperately poor as were most all living on the lower east side. One event which left a lasting impression on young Israel was that of seeing for the first time a Christmas tree, that of his poor Irish neighbors in the tenement. He never forgot how beautiful their tree seemed, even though later in life he came to realize that they obviously had to find the cheapest, smallest, most broken tree. It didn’t matter at the time. He later wrote “…that first tree seemed to tower to heaven.”

When Izzy (as he was known then) was 13 years old, his father died. He’d already lost a sister, now his father, and the family was worse off than they had been upon arriving eight years past. Finally, the next year, Izzy left home to live on the streets. He was small, had no real skills beyond being able to hawk newspapers. No real skills save one: his father had been a cantor in the synagogue, the person who sings religious music and leads prayers. From him young Izzy had learned a little about singing, and about music. He couldn’t read or write music; didn’t play an instrument. He sang, and learned songs by memory.

He began his career as a boy by singing popular songs of the time for a few pennies in booze joints and gin mills in the dangerous section of New York called the Bowery. The rough-neck sailors, dock-hands, laborers and others might throw him a penny, or they might throw him out. He stuck with it. He briefly had a position singing in the chorus of a new musical, but was let go. He then briefly landed employement plugging songs for publishers at music hall shows. This meant that during the show he’d be in the audience, pretending to be a regular customer while actually being paid to be there. When a song ended, he was supposed to clap like mad and insist that the song be sung again. Maybe he’d sing along and get the rest of the audience to, also. A bit of early advertising, right? At any rate, he had jobs, lost them, continued to sing in the whiskey joints of the dark underbelly of New York.

Within another year, Izzy landed a job as a singing waiter in a “cafe” in Chinatown. Really, it was just another seedy establishment visited by gangsters, and by wealthy uptown residents out for an evening of “slumming.” Izzy would sing for tips, and also wait on the customers. One day a relative of the King of England came to the tavern while taking a tour of the seedier side of New York. Izzy and the pianist played and sang for them. Izzy got his name in the paper. The owner of the tavern then suggested, mainly for promotion, that Izzy and the piano player write a song. Izzy was known for being able to make up funny versions of popular songs on the spot, could he write a real song? Marie of Sunny Italy was the result. It was okay, not great. But, most importantly, the name of the lyricist was not Israel Baline, nor Izzy. It was Irving Berlin. He was 19 years old.

And, a legend was born.