The crooner Bing Crosby first sang “White Christmas” live on the “Kraft Music Hall” radio show on December 26, 1941, nineteen days after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.
It was a frightening time, one of our country’s darkest moments. The nation felt wounded, violated, and every living American knew that a tough fight would follow. Holiday spirit was at a low.
Yet, Bing’s song set aside the worry for a moment, and because of its “nostalgia around the holidays, regardless of religion,” it resonated with audiences.
“It’s not upbeat. Its lyrics are wistful, even a sad recollection of past holidays.” Yet people loved its melancholy mood, and it has remained a holiday classic.
Irving Berlin, a prolific songwriter, wrote “White Christmas,” for the 1942 movie, “Holiday Inn,” starring Fred Astaire and Bing Crosby, who sang the song in the movie, along with Marjorie Reynolds.
A story later emerged that Berlin raced into his Manhattan office and asked his secretary to take dictation, for, what he said, was “the best song I ever wrote. The best song anybody ever wrote.”
Irving Berlin was born Israel Bellin, a Russian Jewish immigrant, on May 11, 1888, in Tolochin, Russia, now in Belarus, and he died on September 22, 1989, at the age of 101 years and 4 months.
During that century plus of living, he wrote hundreds of songs, including: “God Bless America,” “Easter Parade,” “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” and the wedding song “Always.”
“White Christmas” though was his most popular, and it sold the best, by far.
Irving Berlin and his second wife, Ellin Mackay—an heiress of Irish Catholic descent—had four children. One son, Irving Berlin, Jr., though died at the age of three weeks, on Christmas Day, 1928.
Although Irving did not celebrate Christmas, he and his wife visited their son’s grave every year on Christmas Day. Some have speculated that the song was Berlin’s method of coping with his tragic loss.
In 2002, the author Jody Rosen wrote a book, “White Christmas: The Story of a Song.” In it, Rosen said, “The kind of deep secret of the song may be that it was Berlin responding in some way to his melancholy about the death of his son.”
Of the song, Berlin’s daughter, Linda Emmett, said, “It’s very evocative. The snow, the Christmas card, the sleigh, the sleigh bells, and it’s entirely secular.”
The poet and biographer Carl Sandburg wrote, “We have learned to be a little sad, and a little lonesome without being sickly about it. This feeling is caught in the song of one thousand jukeboxes that is whistled across streets and in homes. ‘I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas.’
“When we sing it, we do not hate anybody, and there are things we love. Way down under the latest hit of his, Irving Berlin catches us where we love peace.”
Richard Corliss, a film critic and editor at “Time” magazine, said, “[The song] connected with GI’s in their first winter away from home. It voiced the ache of separation, and the wistfulness they felt for the girl back home, for the innocence of youth.”
Bing Crosby said that whenever and wherever he performed for GIs during World War II, they shouted at him on the stage that they wanted to hear him sing “White Christmas.”
Jody Rosen speculates that Berlin may have written the song in 1937, when he was in California, away from wife and kids and home, when making a movie in Beverly Hills, California.
This makes sense when one considers the lyrics to the song’s sole verse that no one knows or hears.
“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. I’m dreaming of a white Christmas.”
All we hear Bing Crosby sing, or anyone else sing, is the chorus, composed of just three sentences.
“I’m dreaming of a white Christmas, just like the ones I used to know, where tree tops glisten, and children listen, to hear sleigh bells in the snow.
“I’m dreaming of a white Christmas, with every Christmas card I write. May your days be merry and bright, and may all your Christmas’ be white.”
The song became an even bigger hit for Bing Crosby when he sang it in the 1954 movie, “White Christmas,” which starred Bing, along with Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney, and Vera-Ellen.
According to the Guinness World Records, the song “White Christmas” is the all-time best-selling Christmas song, and also the all-time best-selling song ever, with some 50 million copies sold.
The closest to that record is Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind.”
A white Christmas is not that unusual for those of us who live in Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, South and North Dakota, on the Great Plains, but it is for those who live in California, south Texas, Arizona, and Florida.
We can dream about a white Christmas, and we may get it. Have a Merry Christmas!
Bill Benson, of Sterling, is a dedicated historian.