Culture

How 'White Christmas' rose from blah to blockbuster

The unlikely origins of America'€™s favorite Christmas tune and best-selling single of all time

Bing Crosby and Marjorie Reynolds in Holiday Inn
Everett Collection

"White Christmas," the most iconic Christmas song we have, was likely written as a joke in a desert hotel. A sweet melancholic lyric set to a wistful melody, it was performed once, a year after it was written, then released as a single in the middle of summer. It made no impression. Everyone involved with "White Christmas," including its author, Irving Berlin, may have at first concluded that it was a flop.

Berlin was born Israel Baline in 1888 in what is now Belarus (then part of the Russian empire). When he was 5, Cossacks raided his family's village, burning it to the ground. He watched from the road, wrapped in a feather quilt. His father, a Jewish cantor in a synagogue, moved the family to the United States in 1893.  

They settled in the Yiddish theater district of New York's Lower East Side and scratched out a living. He became a singer like his father — not in temple but in saloons. As a waiter, he extemporized filthy lyrics to popular songs (much to the delight of the customers) and taught himself piano after hours. He tuned his extraordinary ear to the underlying structure of popular music. "Berlin had perfect pitch for the American vernacular and what he saw as the core of American experience," says Jeffrey Magee, author of "Irving Berlin's American Musical Theater" and a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "Being an outsider sharpened his sense of the center." Only an outsider, it seems, someone intimate with loss, could have written "White Christmas."

In 1909, at the age of 20, Berlin was offered a job in a music-publishing company. His subsequent fame was nearly instantaneous. Over the next 40 years, he wrote more than a thousand songs, almost single-handedly constructing the frame, if not the foundation, of the American songbook. He is responsible for "Blue Skies," "Easter Parade," "Puttin' On the Ritz," "There's No Business Like Show Business" and "God Bless America" — songs that seem to have always existed.  

In 1940, Berlin — by that time a giant of the industry — cranked out another tune at the La Quinta Resort, outside Palm Springs, Calif., or at the Arizona Biltmore in Phoeniz. (Accounts differ.) At the time, the great songwriter seemed to like it quite a bit, supposedly telling his secretary, "Not only is it the best song I ever wrote, it's the best song anybody ever wrote!"  

But Berlin had a tendency to reserve final judgment until his instincts had been confirmed. An instrumental version of "Alexander's Ragtime Band," a song that would become one of Berlin’s biggest hits, was pulled from its first show, "The Friar's Frolic of 1911." As a result, according to historian Laurence Bergreen, Berlin pronounced the song a "dead failure" before crafting lyrics some months later and watching the tune take off.

"Berlin was never convinced of a song's greatness until people demonstrated their love for it by buying sheet music and tickets for shows — or movies," says Magee. "Greatness resided not in his artistic judgment but in the audience's documentable response."

Berlin was more succinct: "The mob is always right."

And so in 1942, when "White Christmas" was released, Berlin would rightly have been disappointed with its reception. Bing Crosby and his band recorded the tune in 18 minutes in May of that year, without fanfare. "I don't think we have any problems with that one, Irving," is all that Crosby is reported to have said about it.

The song was released on July 30, 1942, as part of the soundtrack to the film "Holiday Inn," in which Crosby duets with a dubbed Marjorie Reynolds.

It was odd timing for a Christmas song's release, and the single went nowhere, overshadowed by another song on the soundtrack called "Be Careful, It's My Heart." Months went by, and that seemed to be that.

"White Christmas" was originally written as parody. The song begins with this little-known introduction:

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 24th,

And I am longing to be up north.

Berlin had this lyric cut from the sheet music because of what happened next. By October 1942, "White Christmas" was at the top of the charts, propelled there largely because of Armed Forces Radio. American GIs had slugged their way from Midway to Guadalcanal, and most of them were spending their first Christmas overseas. Hearing Crosby's measured baritone sing those simple lyrics of nostalgia and hope was especially poignant. The song hit No. 1 that year and around the holidays two other times. "Way down under this latest hit of his," noted poet Carl Sandburg, "Irving Berlin catches us where we love peace."

By 1947, the "White Christmas" master was so damaged from overuse that Crosby rerecorded it with the same band and backup singers in an attempt to recreate the original. This is the most familiar version. The song has been covered hundreds of times. One of the many resulting gems is a 1954 version by the Drifters. Though it's a playful doo-wop take, the hopeful — and melancholic — heart of the song remains intact.

In his book "White Christmas — The Story of an American Song," Jody Rosen cites Berlin's classic as the world's most recorded song, with versions in Japanese and Swahili, among other languages. It has been covered by the Flaming Lips, Otis Redding, Stiff Little Fingers, Kiss and a hundred others, the latest being Kelly Clarkson's version for her album "Wrapped in Red."

Oh, and there's Bad Religion's version too.

In Magee's words, "White Christmas" is classic Berlin: crisp, concise imagery, unforced rhymes in a conversational lyric and an eminently singable melody with "a shadow of melancholy." The song is uniquely American for the simple reason that in it, nostalgia trumps reality. It is a dream, a wish, a not quite getting. This would have been the reality of American troops being bombed on Henderson Field, but it is functionally the same for us today. Americans built their country on a dream. "White Christmas" could have been written only by an outsider; in this case, a Jewish immigrant who rejected orthodoxy, a boy raised in violence and squalor who made it with his determination and talent. Idealism, through the best of intentions, can make outsiders of us all.

This is the season of bombardment. Americans hurry from store to store as Christmas songs rain down around us. Like life, "White Christmas" is short and sweet and a little sad. Its lyric consists of only eight sentences, the last couplet fitting for a Christmas card. While there should (and will) be column space dedicated to the worst offenders — the stupid and insistently cheery, the bombastic and the maudlin  — "White Christmas" will always be the exception. May these days be merry and bright.

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