Those glorious songs of (not quite that) old - East Valley Tribune: East Valley Voices

Those glorious songs of (not quite that) old

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Mark J. Scarp is a contributing columnist for the Tribune. Reach him at

Posted: Saturday, December 24, 2011 2:01 pm | Updated: 9:06 am, Wed Dec 28, 2011.

Prescott -- Here among the pines and country roads one can easily become drawn into Christmas as it was presented more than 150 years ago by Currier and Ives. Their winter paintings’ required element — a sleigh — probably would have a hard time dealing with the scant remnants of a week-old snowfall.

Merry Christmas, everyone. And if you’re reading this column at all — let’s face it, running outside to fetch the newspaper or fire up news websites isn’t on most people’s Christmas morning to-do lists — you’re opening gifts today (or last night) to top off another year of celebrating a number of traditions.

Christmas is first and foremost about the carpenter from Nazareth whose teachings changed the world. Yet the religious aspects are joined by other components that get heavy emphasis among the general public. And you can’t always point to the retail industry and television commercials as the responsible parties.

One thing to keep in mind is that when it is written about in song, Christmas is often as those songs’ authors experienced it.

The East Valley is in a desert that is similar in topography and latitude to the arid environs surrounding Bethlehem. This means that each December we head outside most every night to experience temperatures in the 40s and 50s, not the teens and 20s. And there’s no snow, despite what the songs on the radio say.

The secular yuletide we all know is, in part, the product of standard holiday songs, many of which were written in the 1940s and 1950s by talented Jewish composers who captured the Currier and Ives version perfectly, despite having no personal religious connection to Christmas.

Last Monday, Nate Bloom updated his annual article on, “The Jews Who Wrote Christmas Songs,” by noting the following composers and lyricists of popular holiday standards were all of the Jewish faith:

“Sleigh Ride” (Mitchell Parish, lyrics), “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)” (Mel Torme, music and Robert Wells, lyrics), “White Christmas” (Irving Berlin, music and lyrics), “Winter Wonderland” (Felix Bernard, music), “Let it Snow! Let It Snow! Let it Snow!” (Sammy Cahn, music and Jule Styne, lyrics), “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” (George Wyle, music) and “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer,”  “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” and “A Holly Jolly Christmas” (Johnny Marks, music and lyrics).

Most songwriters of this era — Jew and Gentile — lived in and around New York City, where it indeed does snow. In local December discussion there, frequent and gratuitous references are made to snowmen and sleigh bells and roasting chestnuts we desert dwellers don’t have, and more than likely — that original family in the stable and their visitors — the shepherds and wise men didn’t have either.

They saw snow in Central Park and wrote holiday songs about it at a time when the Sun Belt didn’t have too many residents anyway, so you sell records (that’s an old name for downloaded music, kids) to where the people are, or, were.

But, hey, it all works, because people live the Christmas they choose, just as those composers and lyricists (and music producers and marketers) did, even whoever wrote that Hawaiian Christmas song, “Mele Kalikimaka.”

And what can exemplify a season of peace, harmony and brotherhood better than the knowledge that many of its favorite tunes were written by people of another faith?

Whether surrounded by pine trees or saguaros, or whether the skies bring snow or rain — or gritty brown dust — today is a day for family and friends and the idea that it is more blessed to give than to receive (Acts 20:35).

We hug, we sing songs, we tell stories, we eat good food. We fall asleep in big easy chairs and sofas in the presence of loved ones; and that’s OK.

We are redeemed by the life and sacrifice of that carpenter from Nazareth born long ago in a manger. As he gave himself for the sake of others, today is a day for us to recall the lives we touch through giving, many of which we will not know about, but we will have affected and improved those lives nonetheless.

Several years ago, the Phoenix Boys Choir recorded a localized version of “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” I’ll be thinking of its last line today as the East Valley celebrates Christmas in the sunshine:

“And a phoenix in a palm tree!”

Read Mark J. Scarp’s opinions here on Sundays. Watch his video commentaries on He can be reached at

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