Tuesday 23 December 2008

Christmas music and movies, from New York to London

Bob recently linked to a great post at Cover Lay Down, which listed many of the popular Christmas songs written by Jews. There's more along the same lines here. It's also worth noting how many of these songwriters (Irving Berlin, Johnny Marks, Frank Loesser, to name but three) were born or lived in New York.

In fact, an argument could be made that much of our 'traditional' Christmas had its origins in that great city. I can almost hear British readers recoiling in horror, as they reach for their copies of Christmas Carol, preparing their arguments for Dickens being the founder of the modern festive season.  And I remember my own hostile reaction the first time I heard Phil Spector's Christmas album, with its voiceover reminding us that 'Christmas is such an American time of year' (or words to that effect).

But in addition to the catalogue of seasonal songs emanating from NYC, of which White Christmas, Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer, Winter Winterland and Let it Snow are perhaps the most famous, there would also be no red-suited Santa Claus, no reindeer, no descent down the chimney to leave presents for children, were it not for one Clement Clarke Moore, a Columbia professor and resident of Chelsea, Manhattan, who wrote A Visit from St. Nicholas, aka Twas The Night Before Christmas, whilst living there in 1823. 

The association between New York and Christmas has been reinforced in dozens of festive films. It's one of our family traditions to work our way through some of these in the days leading up to Christmas, and it's remarkable how many of them, from Miracle on 34th Street (we have to watch both versions) to Elf, choose Manhattan as their inevitable backdrop. (Incidentally, there's a post to be written - when I have more time - on Christmas movies as modern parables about faith, with Santa standing in as an ecumenical, sentimentalised substitute for God.)

The other night we revisited Love Actually, and it occurred to me that one of Richard Curtis' aims might have been to show that London can function just as well as New York as a 'Christmassy' setting. There are certainly plenty of lush, iconic views of the contemporary capital, and the film often seems to be acting out a love-hate relationship, fired by an alternating superiority-inferiority complex, with America. Watching it again the other evening, in the twilight days of the Bush presidency and at the dawn of the Obama era, I found the scene showing the visit of the US president, in which prime minister Hugh Grant gets cheered for standing up to the supposedly 'bullying' US, even more jarring and pathetic than usual. I wouldn't have thought it was a scene designed to win the hearts of audiences across the Atlantic.

To round off, and linking together the various strands of this rather rambling post, here's one of my favourite seasonal songs, Loesser's Baby, It's Cold Outside, as sung by Will Ferrell and the rather wonderful Zooey Deschanel:

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