I still remember the very first “grown-up” album my parents let me play on my dad’s stereo. They bought it during the Christmas season of 1967 from the local W.T. Grant store, which was a cross between an old-time downtown five-and-dime and a more modern department store. The album was A Very Merry Christmas, and it started my life-long love for music of the season.
My Christmas Song of the Day for December 17 is one of the songs from that LP, one that has seldom shown up in all the years since, but is absolutely gorgeous.
I could spend a lot of words talking about Theodore Bikel (1924-2015). He was a versatile actor on stage, screen and television; a political and union activist; and a folk singer. He started recording for the Elektra label in 1956, and over many years, he made albums of folk songs from many countries, singing in 21 different languages.
In 1967, he collaborated with a folk group called The Pennywhistlers on an album called Songs of the Earth. By then, Elektra was no longer strictly a folk label, as it now had the groups Love and The Doors, and Bikel’s album might have sold a few thousand copies at best. But one of them ended up in the hands of whoever compiled A Very Merry Christmas, and he must have been struck by the gentle beauty of this part-Hebrew, part-English lullaby.
It is indeed a rare Christmas song that starts with the word “Shalom,” but “Sweetest Dreams Be Thine,” written for Bikel’s 1967 album by Jim Friedman, is one. After all, it can be easy to forget that the Holy Family was Jewish and spoke Aramaic, a close cousin of Hebrew. Listen along as Theodore Bikel and the Pennywhistlers sing.