Seven Songs for Christmas: Irving Berlin and Bing Crosby, White Christmas

Like the Pogues? Fairytale of New York, White Christmas blends melancholic reminiscence with a wistful yearning for better times ahead, and like Slade?s Merry Christmas, Everybody, it was a song that came at just the right time to sooth the souls of a world plunged into darkness.

Like both those songs, White Christmas had a long genesis. Irving Berlin wrote the song at the tail-end of the Depression, and, despite supposedly telling his secretary, ?Grab your pen and take down this song. I just wrote the best song I’ve ever written?heck, I just wrote the best song that anybody’s ever written!?, he stowed it away for a couple of years.

He finally pulled the song out of the trunk in 1942, for the Bing Crosby/Fred Astaire film, Holiday Inn.

It wasn?t just the shadow of the Depression that inspired White Christmas? wistful atmosphere. As a Jewish kid in Brooklyn, young Israel Beilin experienced Christmas as an outsider. But the adult Irving Berlin loved Christmas with his family. Still, the death of his first son, just one month old, on Christmas Eve 1928 tinged the holiday season with sadness, as did missing Christmas with the family due to his work commitments in Hollywood.

So, in 1937, a movie biz friend surprised him with a short reel of his family back East, standing waving in the snow outside home.

A tragedy of a different sort intruded during the production of Holiday Inn, when America was stunned by the attack on Pearl Harbor. Bing Crosby performed the song for the first time two weeks later, on a live (and unrecorded) radio broadcast. By the time the record was actually released, nine months later, American troops were embroiled in their first major offensive against the Japanese, at the bloody battle of Guadalcanal.

With its lush, romantic melody, evocative lyrics, and Crosby?s casual, buttery croon, the song was hugely popular with troops scattered across the world, and with the folks keeping the home fires burning. Naturally, it was a runaway smash hit, topping the charts for 11 weeks in 1942 alone, and returning to number one during the Christmases of 1945 and 1946.

In fact, White Christmas went on to become the world?s best selling single.

Its success surprised both Berlin (despite his earlier enthusiasm about the song) and Crosby. Berlin professed to be shocked by its success, while Crosby downplayed his own contribution, claiming that ?a jackdaw with a cleft palate could have sung it successfully?.

White Christmas was certainly unusual for its time. Until then, Christmas carols rather than secular songs had been the rule. Carols like Good King Wenceslas also tended to dwell on the harshness of winter weather, instead of actually longing for snow.

While the song is lyrically simple to the point of sparseness, it packs a lot into 54 words. Dreaming of the happy past, waiting for absent loved ones coming home, a hint of romance, and a wish for a brighter future. Musically, the song reflects Berlin?s idiosyncrasies as a songwriter. Notes place emphasis in unexpected places, and minor chords on keywords heightens its tugs on the heartstrings. Opting to repeat the opening melody rather than use a bridge also reinforces its emotional impact.

White Christmas was the perfect song for a world at war. Poet Carl Sandburg wrote, in that bleak Christmas of 1942, that, ?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 a thousand jukeboxes and the tune whistled in streets and homes, I?m Dreaming of a White Christmas?.

But the best story I ever heard about White Christmas comes from right here in Tasmania. During a talkback session on a local radio station about Christmas songs, an elderly lady rang in with the following tale of woe.

Back in the 40s, aged 15, she got her first holiday job at Myer?s department store in Hobart. Though whether any pay packet was worth what followed is debatable. Her job, it transpired, was to sit by a record player hooked into the store?s tannoy, playing White Christmas. Every time the record finished, she had to pick up the needle, drop it back at the start, and let it play. Again. And again. All day. Every day. For two weeks. Nearly 75 years later, she said, she still couldn?t bear to hear the song again.

Luckily, the rest of us who never had to endure that cruel and unusual employment can still listen to White Christmas and let it, as Sandburg said, ?catch us where we love peace?.