IN THE SPRING OF 1942, when Irving Berlin first played White Christmas for Bing Crosby, the crooner nodded and said, “You don’t have to worry about this one, Irving.”
71 years later, it’s safe to say that Bing was right, many times over. White Christmas is, quite simply, the biggest pop song of all time. Crosby’s version alone has sold over 40 million copies (depending on the source, it remains the best-selling single ever, or is second to Candle In The Wind, Elton John’s tribute to Marilyn Monroe/Princess Diana). And there have been decades-spanning covers by an A-Z of artists, including Louis Armstrong, The Mormon Tabernacle Choir, The Supremes, Bob Dylan, Twisted Sister, Bob Marley and Taylor Swift. There are versions in almost every language, including Yiddish and Swahili. Add to that endless renditions courtesy of Muzak, toys and greeting cards, and you have a song that has magically grafted itself onto humanity’s DNA.
With a standard that ubiquitous, it’s easy to forget that there was a time when it didn’t exist.
Though Berlin, a great self-mythologizer, offered many different versions of how he wrote the song (attributing its creation variously to years from 1938-1942), its first appearance can be traced to 1937, as part of an unproduced Broadway show called Crystal Ball. At the time, Berlin was living in Hollywood, writing movie musicals, and White Christmas was conceived as a humorous number about a west coaster’s view of the holiday. It began:
The sun is shining,
the grass is green,
the orange and palm trees sway.
There’s never been such a day
in Beverly Hills, L.A.
But it’s December the twenty-fourth
and I’m longing to be up north…
The addition of this verse colours the following refrain in a very different way, making it more of a breezy send-up than the idyllic Currier & Ives-style vision we know. After the song became a hit, Berlin ordered the verse cut from all sheet music.
And yet, no matter how the lyric in the refrain is interpreted, the music beneath tugs at the heart. With its chromatic movement, slight dissonances and that heartbreaking shift from major to minor on the line “May your days be merry and bright,” the song almost has the character of a blues.
The sombre tone had its roots in personal tragedy. On December 25, 1928, Berlin’s three-week old infant son, Irving Berlin, Jr., died of typhoid fever. For years afterward, Berlin and his wife Ellin made a Christmas eve pilgrimage to Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx to lay flowers on their son’s grave. Though Berlin would always deny that his songs were drawn from his own life, it’s impossible not to connect the death of his child with his feelings towards the holiday.
“Crosby said he received requests for White Christmas regardless of the season.”
The song’s mournful flavour made it the perfect sentiment for wartime America. In 1942, the year of Crosby’s recording, troops spent their first winter overseas. Berlin’s glistening treetops and sleigh bells in the snow spoke to their longing and homesickness for families they’d left behind.
Performing overseas for the USO, Crosby said he received requests for White Christmas regardless of the season. “It really got so that I hesitated about doing it because invariably it caused such a nostalgic yearning among the men that it made them sad,” he recalled.
And that nostalgic yearning – for the past, for childhood, for lost innocence – is in all of us. It’s what keeps the song so emotionally resonant after all this time. There is also its economy, its openness. With only 54 words in 9 lines, the lyric is non-specific enough to allow each listener to project their own holiday feelings onto its big white screen.
When Irving Berlin passed away September 22, 1989, he had lived to see White Christmas break every record in the popular song canon. In his 101 years, he wrote thousands of songs (he published 812 and had 451 hits, a songwriter’s batting average never matched). But White Christmas remains his crowning achievement.
As Berlin pronounced to his copyist when he first brought it to his publishing office in Manhattan: “This is the best song anyone ever wrote.”
He might be right.