Dec 20, 2018
This week at In The Past Lane, the American History podcast, we explore the fascinating backstory of the most popular Christmas song of all time, “White Christmas.” Did you know that this song, which topped the charts more than 75 years ago in late 1942, was in many ways a war song? It’s true—and it has everything to do with the context in which it was released. In fact, the connection between “White Christmas” and World War II is but one of several surprising details related to the song’s origins.
Take for example, the fact that it was written by a Jewish songwriter. Remarkably, this was the case with many American Christmas songs, including “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “The Christmas Song” -- or what’s popularly known as “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire.” In the case of “White Christmas,” it was written by Irving Berlin. This legendary songwriter was born Israel Baline in1888 in Siberia, Russia. He emigrated to the US with his family in 1888 at the age of 5 and they settled on New York’s Lower East Side, at the time the largest Jewish enclave in the world.
But not everyone in the neighborhood was Jewish. It included families from places like Germany, Ireland, Italy, Greece, and China. In Irving Berlin’s building there lived an Irish family and they took a liking to the young “Izzy” and often invited him into their apartment. And that’s how it came to pass that in December 1893 5-year old Irving Berlin witnessed his first Christmas in America. It was a warm a delightful experience that he never forgot. Later as an adult, he married an Irish Catholic woman named Ellin Barrett. They raised their children Catholic, so with each passing year Irving Berlin’s love of the Christmas holiday – its secular trappings anyway – grew more intense.
Now let’s jump ahead a few decades to 1940. Irving Berlin is a famous and prolific songwriter. And in January that year he wrote “White Christmas.” He sat on the song for more than a year, unsure of what to do with it. Then, as fate would have it, he was approached by a Hollywood studio to write the score for “Holiday Inn,” a musical that featured songs about each of the major holidays. With one song already in hand – and word that the famous singer Bing Crosby had been cast as the lead, Berlin said yes.
We should note here that Bing Crosby played a key role in making White Christmas a hit song. By the time of the filming of “Holiday Inn,” Crosby was the most famous singer in America, perhaps the world. His manly, yet emotive crooning was unlike anything that preceded it in the world of pop music. This was due in part to Crosby’s extraordinary voice, but also to his technique. He was the first singer to embrace and then master the microphone, a new medium for broadcasting and recording introduced in the 1920s. Historians of pop music invariably speak of Crosby’s uncanny “caressing” of the microphone with his voice, creating an unparalleled intimacy and connection with his listeners.
Crosby recorded “White Christmas” in the decidedly non-Yuletide season of May 1942. “Holiday Inn” opened in August and became an instant hit at the box office. So, too, was its centerpiece song, “White Christmas” (the only one sung twice in the film). “White Christmas” hit the Top 30 charts on October 3 and kept right on marching upward until it hit #1 on October 31, a position it held for an unprecedented eleven weeks. Decca, the label that produced the record, was swamped with orders and barely kept up with demand.
Irving Berlin’s skill as a songwriter and Bing Crosby’s talent as a singer had combined to produce an American classic. But there was one additional factor that helps explain the phenomenal success of “White Christmas”—timing. As Jody Rosen writes in his book, White Christmas: The Story of an American Song, the fall of 1942 was the first holiday season away from home for millions of American servicemen. Demand by American GI’s for “White Christmas” records exploded in September – fully three months before the holiday. And the reason is clear: the song acknowledged their longing to be home with their families. “In the song’s melancholic yearning for Christmases past,” writes Rosen, “listeners heard the expression of their own nostalgia for peacetime.”
And so it was that this song of peace and love soon became a most unlikely war anthem. Unlike George M. Cohan’s World War I call to arms, “Over There!”, “White Christmas” did not appeal to the martial spirit or vengeance. Rather, it reminded Americans on both the frontline and homefront what was at stake in the war. Here’s how one newspaper, the Buffalo Courier-Express, put it: “When Irving Berlin set 120,000,000 people dreaming of a White Christmas, he provided a forcible reminder that we are fighting for the right to dream and memories to dream about.” Not surprisingly, when Crosby visited the troops in Europe in late 1944, his rendition of “White Christmas” brought tears to the eyes of the most battle-hardened soldiers.
For the next five years the Crosby-Berlin classic surged to the top of the charts each Christmastime, hitting #1 in 1945 and 1947. All told, it made the Top 30 sixteen times in the three decades that followed its release. The song’s popularity and staying power proved irresistible to Hollywood executives who, in 1954, released the hit feature film “White Christmas” starring Danny Kaye and – wait for it – Bing Crosby.
Long after the film disappeared, “White Christmas” kept going, Crosby’s recording sold more than 30 million copies – more than any other pop song in history. Dozens of singers, from Loretta Lynn to Destiny’s Child have recorded versions of the song, pushing total worldwide sales past 160 million – and counting.
None, of course, compare to the original as sung by Bing Crosby in 1942, a song of peace, love, and fond memories of times “merry and bright” that arrived just when the nation needed it.
One last thought to consider: the U.S. has engaged in many wars since 1945 and each has generated its share of popular songs. But none of them conjure up warm and fuzzy feelings like “White Christmas.” Indeed, some of the most popular songs were anthems that protested war—think of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” during Vietnam. The reason is simple: World War II was the last war in U.S. history to begin and end with overwhelming popular support.
In the course of our conversation, we discuss:
How Irving Berlin, a Jewish immigrant to the U.S., came to write a famous song about Christmas
How “White Christmas” first debuted in 1942 as part of the film, “Holiday Inn.”
How Bing Crosby’s great talent and technique as a singer helped popularize “White Christmas.”
How the nostalgia and warm memories at the heart of “White Christmas” touched a nerve among the American public in the fall of 1942, the first holiday season when millions of US servicemen and women would be away from home for the first time.
Ace Collins, Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas (Zondervan, 2001)
Edward Jablonski, Irving Berlin: American Troubadour (Holt, 1999)
Penne L. Restad, Christmas in America: A History (Oxford, 1996)
Jody Rosen, White Christmas: The Story of an American
Song (Scribner, 2007)
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Music for This Episode
Jay Graham, ITPL Intro (JayGMusic.com)
Kevin McCleod, “Impact Moderato” (Free Music Archive)
Andy Cohen, “Trophy Endorphins” (Free Music Archive)
Jon Luc Hefferman, “Winter Trek” (Free Music Archive)
The Bell, “I Am History” (Free Music Archive)
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