I have a confession to make: I enjoy Christmas songs.
Not the sappy elevator music on the pop charts. I mean the hard-core stuff. The traditional religious hymns sung in four-part harmony. I don't need to name names. You know what I'm talking about.
Don't think you've caught me in some clandestine Christian sympathies, chas v'shalom. This is about music, not religion. The melodies are simply beautiful. But I never get past the first couple of bars before I choke on the lyrics.
I admit I never felt this way growing up. Christmas was an annoyance, an all-encompassing, smothering influence, a constant reminder of my position as a religious minority. It conquered everything from the shopping malls to the sitcoms.
One of the comforts of living in Israel is being part of the religious majority in society. The major festivals here are Pesach and Sukkot, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. Christmas passes with barely a notice, except in the dwindling Christian areas. (Bill O'Reilly was right: American Jews who are offended by the public pervasiveness of Christianity have the option of moving to Israel. When you're a tiny minority, it's presumptuous to object to the ubiquity of the majority culture.)
With the comfort and self-confidence of a Jewish Israeli, I can now objectively state that many Christmas songs are beautiful. They have a majesty and grace rare in Jewish music.
Taking Chanukah at random, Maoz Tzur is about the only song which fits that description. Otherwise, Chanukah songs fall into three categories: festive neo-Chassidic tunes designed for furious dancing, children's songs about dreidels and candles, or heretical songs written by secular Zionists.
There are also some lovely Shabbat zemirot, and I always enjoy learning new tunes for them, but then a holiday comes around and suddenly everyone sits around the table at a loss for something worth singing. Is it appropriate that our festival meals are less musical than our Shabbatot?
Pesach melodies are either unimaginative chants (Dayenu!) or thinly-veiled drinking tunes suitable for the fourth cup of wine (Chad Gadya). On Purim you're lucky to stay in key. And it's a good thing for Hallel or we'd hardly have anything at all to sing on Sukkot.
Could it be that we instinctively feel that if Jewish music is beautiful and harmonic it sounds goyish? (Certainly much modern Ashkenazi synagogue music was adapted from Christian styles, if not actual melodies.) At least the chassidim of Modzitz don't think so. They're known for their love for music, especially for marches and waltzes.
Lest I sound too gloomy (post-Chanukah blues?), let me leave you with the dulcet tones of the Kol Zimra "vocal simcha ensemble" from Englewood, New Jersey. Audio and video of their performance at the White House menorah lighting is available here. They sang a beautiful rendition of Maoz Tzur, followed by... assorted children's songs.