The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

White Christmas

Words & Music by Irving Berlin, copyright 1940 and 1942

Editor's Note:  Two weeks before Christmas, 2003, I received the following note from Frank of Salem, Oregon:

...back in the early 1990s I attended a Unity Church here in Salem.  Their services tend to be less traditional than mainstream churches but still reserved. During the service there is a musical interlude while people sit quietly. The material varies from service to service.  This church is small so the music is usually provided by someone playing the piano.  One Sunday just before Christmas the pianist began to play “White Christmas”.  By the time she got to the end someone had started to sing along very quietly.  She began the song again and more people began to join in.  By the end of the song every one was singing. It was very magical; very spontaneous.  In many ways “White Christmas” has become a hymn.

From the White Christmas page, Steven Lewis' The Bing Crosby Internet Museum (excerpt, abridged)

"White Christmas" was written in 1940 by a Irving Berlin for the 1942 movie "Holiday Inn" starring Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire. Berlin's assignment was to write a song about each of the major holidays of the year. But Berlin, who was Jewish, found that writing a song about Christmas was the most challenging. He drew upon his experiences of the holiday in New York (including Christmas Trees erected by neighbors when he was a boy) and Los Angeles, but still felt that the end result was wanting. However, when Bing first heard Berlin audition "White Christmas" in 1941 he reassured Irving that he had created a winner. Bing's preliminary evaluation turned out to be a gross understatement.

Bing Crosby introduced "White Christmas" to the public on his NBC radio show, the Kraft Music Hall, December 25, 1941. Apparently, no recording of this broadcast survived the War. He then recorded the song for Decca on May 29, 1942, with the John Scott Trotter Orchestra. "Holiday Inn" was released in August, 1942.

By the end of the War it had become the biggest-selling single of all time. Bing's recording hit the charts on Oct. 3, 1942, and rose to #1 on Oct. 31, where it stayed for an amazing 11 weeks. In the following years Bing's recording hit the top 30 pop charts another 16 times, even topping the charts again in 1945 and January of '47. The song remains Bing's best-selling recording, and the best-selling Christmas single of all-time.

The success of the song led eventually to a movie based on the song. The movie "White Christmas" was released in 1954 and became the leading box-office draw of 1954. The movie was supposed to reunite Crosby and Astaire for their third Irving Berlin extravaganza of song and dance. However, Astaire bowed out after reading the script (another source says that Astaire was ill at the time). Donald O'Connor was selected to replace Astaire, but he, too, had to exit because of a back injury. O'Connor was replaced by Danny Kaye.

Bing's single of "White Christmas" sold more than 30 million copies worldwide and was recognized as the best-selling single in any music category for more than 50 years until 1998 when Elton John's tribute to Princess Diana, "Candle in the Wind," overtook it in a matter of months. However, Bing's recording of "White Christmas" has sold additional millions of copies as part of numerous albums, including his best-selling album "Merry Christmas", which was first released as an L.P. in 1949.

The most familiar version of "White Christmas" is not the one Crosby recorded in 1942, however. Bing was called back to the Decca studios on March 19, 1947, to re-record "White Christmas" as a result of damage to the 1942 master due to its frequent use. Every effort was made to reproduce the original Decca recording session, once again including the John Scott Trotter Orchestra and the Ken Darby Singers. The resulting re-issue is the one that has become most familiar to the public. However, the 1998 MCA double-CD "Bing Crosby -- The Voice of Christmas," includes the original 1942 release as well as three other versions by Bing.

Other information from

Sheet music to White Christmas is not included in any major published collection, as nearly as I can tell.  During his lifetime, Mr. Berlin jealously guarded the lyrics; according to Jody Rosen, Berlin "frostily refused permission to reprint his lyrics even to friends working on fawning tributes." It can only be obtained as an individual piece from the Hal Leonard Corporation, exclusive distributor of the owner of the song, the Irving Berlin Music Company. The verses (but not the introduction) is printed in Albert J. & Shirley C. Menendez, Christmas Songs Made In America (1999)

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William Studwell, The Christmas Carol Reader

Because "White Christmas" may be the most popular American secular Christmas carol, rivaled only by "Jingle Bells," it could easily be presumed that it was treated as a star from the moment of its 1940 conception by the incomparable song writer Irving Berlin (1888-1989). Before its first presentation to the public, though, in the 1942 black-and-white movie Holiday Inn, the expected hit of Berlin's score was to be the Valentine's Day song, "Be Careful, It's My Heart." That song quickly lost out to "White Christmas" and has more or less been relegated to the status of a historical footnote in comparison to its highly celebrated score mate.

The honors for "White Christmas" commenced soon after its premier. It received the Oscar for best song of 1942. It was recorded by Bing Crosby, who had sung it in Holiday Inn, and that version eventually became the single best-selling record of all time. It precipitated the remake of Holiday Inn in 1954, the second version being in color and having the only possible title, White Christmas. In the 1942 movie Crosby was one of the stars along with Fred Astaire and Marjorie Reynolds. In the 1954 movie Crosby was undoubtedly the leading attraction (after the song, of course), in spite of the star-filled supporting cast of Danny Kaye, Ver-Ellen, and Rosemary Clooney.

ASCAP

According to a 1998 press release from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP), "White Christmas" remains the number one performed Christmas carol, and is the most recorded Christmas carol (over 500 versions in "scores of languages"). The other top five are "Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town," Mel Torme’s "The Christmas Song," "Winter Wonderland," "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" and Leroy Anderson’s "Sleigh Ride."

By 2003, however, "White Christmas" had slipped to the number two position on their list of Christmas songs.  The number one song was "The Christmas Song" (Mel Torme and Robert Wells). The other three in the top five are "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town (J. Fred Coots and Haven Gillespie), "Winter Wonderland" (Felix Bernard and Richard B. Smith), and "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas" (Ralph Blane and Hugh Martin). By 2007, "White Christmas" occupied the number five position (based on airplay over the preceding five years). For more information, see the ASCAP Top 25 Holiday Song List.

Editor's Note

A new book, White Christmas: The Story Of An American Song, has been published by Jody Rosen (New York: Scribner, November 19, 2002). It's fascinating reading, both about the song and the man. Here a few reviews.

The following review is from Publishers Weekly:

With its references to glistening treetops and sleigh bells in the snow, Irving Berlin's dreamy ballad has become a monstrously popular classic. Since its 1942 debut (softly crooned by Bing Crosby), artists from Doris Day to the Flaming Lips have recorded their own versions of the tune; it's become the world's most frequently recorded song. Music journalist Rosen offers a perfect, compact book chronicling the song's birth, initial reception and rise to popularity, simultaneously giving readers an understanding of the iconic Berlin and 1940s American popular culture. The prolific songwriter couldn't read or write music, yet composed continually, using his "musical secretary," Helmy Kresa, to pen the songs he wrote on the piano. Berlin introduced "White Christmas" to Kresa on January 8, 1940. Rosen explains the song's little-known introduction (which sets the narrator in California, longing for cold weather); offers interpretations of the song's escapist appeal (like so many popular songs of its time, it doesn't acknowledge the Great Depression's hardships); and comments on the prevalence of Jewish composers in that era's popular song business (Berlin himself was an Eastern European Jewish immigrant). The unsentimental writing and thorough research Rosen draws on such sources as Berlin's family and music scholars make this a delightful testament to the power of one simple song. (Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc.)

Library Journal:

New York Times contributor Rosen offers a thoroughly researched book that traces the history of the beloved Irving Berlin song from its conception to the present. In an accessible style, with marvelous turns of phrase, he addresses the phenomenally popular recordings by Bing Crosby, the song's pivotal role in the 1942 film, Holiday Inn, and its iconic status as one of the best-selling song sheets of the 20th century. Rosen delves into Berlin's family life, his repudiation of his orthodox Jewish upbringing, and his compositional technique. In addition, Rosen considers when the song was actually written, its popularity among troops during World War II, and the "competition" between "White Christmas" and "God Bless America" as the favorite Irving Berlin song, especially in the context of 9/11. Along the way, Rosen limns the cultural underpinnings of the song and the role of Jewish Americans in the creative arts, with somewhat mixed results; his intention is admirable, but at times he overstates his case and resorts to odd word or phrase choices. However, these and a few other errors are small distractions from one of the first available titles to treat this specific song. Recommended for all collections. (Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc.)

The Guardian:

You might not know this, but Irving Berlin's 'White Christmas' may be the most palpable hit of all hit songs. According to Jody Rosen in his 'story of a song', it has been recorded in Dutch, Yiddish, Japanese and - perhaps most surreal of all - Swahili. Its sales have topped 125 million worldwide and its place as the all-time top single has been challenged only once, not by the Beatles, not by Presley nor Sinatra, but by Elton John's 'Candle in the Wind 97' tribute to Princess Diana. The roll call of singers who have recorded 'White Christmas' includes the Beach Boys, Bob Dylan and Bob Marley.

According to Rosen, the song has been the blank slate on which Americans have expressed their views on race, religion and national identity. In Philip Roth's Operation Shylock, 'White Christmas' is an emblem of Jewish genius'. In Kurt Vonnegut's Mother Night, it's a tedious reminder of World War II. During the Vietnam War, it was also used by the US military as the code for the immediate evacuation of Saigon.

As Rosen demonstrates in this seasonal and enjoyable little book, the astounding popular success of White Christmas, 'the best song anybody ever wrote,' according to Irving Berlin, is due as much to luck as to genius. The story that Rosen tells is a timely reminder that the overnight sensation of newspaper headlines is usually the fruit of a long and painful gestation.

Izzy Berlin was a self-taught Jewish immigrant workaholic who named himself after an English actor and a German city. He had served his apprenticeship in Tin Pan Alley and was part of a golden generation that included Cole Porter, Jerome Kern and George Gershwin.

He actually wrote the song early in the New Year of 1940, possibly in California. Accounts vary. 'White Christmas' probably did not leap into his head fully formed. It seems that he had been mulling over a Christmas song for several years, possibly doodling with a satire on American seasonal sentimentality. Berlin did not like Christmas, and with good reason. Buried in his creative subconbscious was the tragic death of his infant son, Irving Berlin Jnr, on Boxing Day 1928.

If the process of inspiration was complex, its expression was hardly a joyous explosion of lyricism, either. The song that has become an emblem of American musical kitsch (what the blurb calls 'a secular hymn') was originally conceived simply as the chorus (see box) to 16 measures of lost verse, placing the 'swellegant' singer in Beverly Hills, LA, 'where the sun is shining and the grass is green', but still longing to be up north.

It was here that the yearning of the 'I'm dreaming...' chorus that followed struck lucky. By the winter of 1939, American popular culture had been overtaken by nostalgia for America's rural past. The top movie hits that year were a Civil War epic celebrating the vanished South (Gone With The Wind), and a musical about a Kansas farm girl who longs to return home (Wizard of Oz). The book of 1940 was John Steinbeck's vision of an agrarian utopia, The Grapes of Wrath.

For Berlin, what had begun as a bittersweet send-up now became a sentimental serenade. All he needed to hit the jackpot was the voice that Louis Armstrong compared to 'gold being poured out of a cup.'

In hindsight, the creative marriage of Berlin's song and Bing Crosby's voice seems inevitable. Crosby, who ascribed his success to the fact that his fans thought they could sing like him in the shower, was as much of a hit-maker as Berlin with no fewer than 38 number one hits to his name. Crosby was the all-American good guy, the 'aw shucks' hero who seemed like a fellow you could meet in a diner or a bar.

Hollywood producers were desperate to bring Crosby and Berlin together in a musical movie. The vehicle chosen for this was operation was the long-forgotten Holiday Inn. Even now, the moguls took no chances. Fred Astaire also stars in Holiday Inn.

How Berlin's 'White Christmas' fits into what Rosen calls 'Holiday Inn's on-screen silliness' hardly matters. What is important is that, once the musical arrangement of 'White Christmas' had been completed by Berlin's musically literate assistants, Crosby stepped up to the microphone to make history. As usual, he recorded the song in two takes - and then went off to play a round of golf.

Rosen has some clever things to say about the 'minstrel tradition' that lurks behind the music of Holiday Inn, but the plain fact is that it was not the movie but Crosby's subsequent 1942 recording that did the business. Crosby himself was dismissive about his achievement. 'A jackdaw with a cleft palate could have sung it successfully,' he once said.

Now the final piece in the jigsaw falls into place. Crosby's recording of 'White Christmas' was released in the run-up to Christmas 1942. A year after Pearl Harbor, millions of American boys were scattered abroad for the first time in their lives, missing their families in places as far afield as Guadalcanal and New Guinea. 'White Christmas' (which never mentions the war) articulated the GIs' longing for home in a simple and melodic way that no one, least of all Berlin and Crosby, anticipated.

The song was a word-of-mouth sensation, which no one, least of all Berlin, could explain. But when it toppled the patriotic anthem 'Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition' in the charts, it found its place in legend from which it has never been dislodged.

There have been many attempts to explain the phenomenal success of 'White Christmas'. Rosen rehearses many of them. But it was probably Berlin who unwittingly got it right when speaking generally about his work in World War II. 'History makes songs, ' he observed.

The Christian Science Monitor

Nostalgia with all the trimmings

I'm dreaming of a white Christmas just like the ones I used to know ... in Beverly Hills, L.A.?

We all know that Bing could sing. He could sell, too, as 396 of his tunes hit the charts, including 38 No. 1 hits (the Beatles, by comparison captured the top spot 24 times). Worldwide, Crosby has sold more than 400 million records, but for all of his tunes - most done, famously, in a single take - one outsold, out-stripped, outlasted them all: "White Christmas," with total sales of more than 100 million copies.

Even though the song has been covered by everyone from underground pop whiz-kids The Flaming Lips to the drippy Michael Bolton, The Three Tenors to arena-kings Kiss, it's still Bing Crosby's 1942 version that defines the song.

But, as Jody Rosen demonstrates in his phenomenal cultural history "White Christmas," our focus on Crosby is a function of the ascendance of the singer at the expense of the songwriter. And the wild success of the 1942 release of "White Christmas" helped catalyze this "shift from the emphasis on the sale of sheet-music scores to records - from the songs themselves to performances by singing charismatics." The unwitting victims - at least in terms of fame if not royalties - were the standard writers of Tin Pan Alley, and, most notably, the esteemed Irving Berlin.

On Jan. 8, 1940, Berlin handed Helmy Kresa, Berlin's musical secretary, the 48 measures (which would be reduced to 32) of "White Christmas" and heartily proclaimed, "I want you to take down a song I wrote over the weekend. Not only is it the best song I ever wrote, it's the best song anybody ever wrote."

Berlin, as students of pop music know, was Tin Pan Alley. Over a storied career, this Jewish immigrant from Siberia published 812 songs, of which 451 became hits. He did Hollywood, he did Broadway, he did USO shows. Berlin wrote in a variety of styles, constantly keeping his songs in step with what America wanted - war songs, ragtime, or, in the case of "White Christmas," nostalgia for something lost - perhaps, Rosen speculates, the death of Berlin's 24-day-old son, Irving Berlin Jr., on Dec. 1, 1928.

In his focused and thoroughly engaging book, Rosen presents the reader with the luxuriant tapestry of American popular song through the microcosm of "White Christmas." The results - merry and bright - show more than just a story of one song, they catalog the expansion of American music, the pressing desire for assimilation by Jewish immigrants in the early 20th century, how songs define Americans and their visions of the past, and, most important, how Christmas came to be Christmas.

What's so strange in all of this, as Rosen rightly points out, is that the now-deleted first stanza of the song endows the tune with the stuff of satire, not longing:

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.

Rather than the lungful paean we've come to love (or hate), the verse satirizes Hollywood. It was planned as a first-act show-stopper for Holiday Inn, and, "was, in its inventor's initial conception, something else entirely: wry, parodic, lighthearted - a novelty tune."

It was Berlin himself who ordered the stanza cut from all future sheet music in 1942 after hearing the power of the song in Crosby's unmistakable croon and watching "White Christmas" rocket up the charts a full four months before Christmas.

Ironies, abound, of course, since a secular Christmas song written by a Jewish immigrant became the embodiment of holiday nostalgia. Further, the very selling of the idea of a more tranquil, innocent, idealized holiday past helped fuel the American commercialization of Christmas. Rosen revels in these quirky aspects of our culture, and his "White Christmas" glides through this song's snow-capped history with verve, intelligence, and sleigh-bell jingling aplomb.

Mark Luce lives in Kansas City, Mo. He serves on the board of directors of the National Book Critics Circle.

Simon and Schuster

When Irving Berlin first conceived the song "White Christmas," he envisioned it as a "throwaway" -- a satirical novelty number for a vaudeville-style stage revue. By the time Bing Crosby introduced the tune in the winter of 1942, it had evolved into something far grander: the stately yuletide ballad that would become the world's all-time top-selling and most widely recorded song.

In this vividly written narrative, Jody Rosen provides both the fascinating story behind the making of America's favorite Christmas carol and a cultural history of the nation that embraced it. Berlin, the Russian-Jewish immigrant who became his adopted country's greatest pop troubadour, had written his magnum opus -- what one commentator has called a "holiday Moby-Dick" -- a timeless song that resonates with some of the deepest themes in American culture: yearning for a mythic New England past, belief in the magic of the "merry and bright" Christmas season, longing for the havens of home and hearth. Today, the song endures not just as an icon of the national Christmas celebration but as the artistic and commercial peak of the golden age of popular song, a symbol of the values and strivings of the World War II generation, and of the saga of Jewish-American assimilation. With insight and wit, Rosen probes the song's musical roots, uncovering its surprising connections to the tradition of blackface minstrelsy and exploring its unique place in popular culture through six decades of recordings by everyone from Bing Crosby to Elvis Presley to *NSYNC. White Christmas chronicles the song's legacy from jaunty ragtime-era Tin Pan Alley to the elegant world of midcentury Broadway and Hollywood, from the hardscrabble streets where Irving Berlin was reared to the battlefields of World War II where American GIs made "White Christmas" their wartime anthem, and from the Victorian American past that the song evokes to the twenty-first-century present where Berlin's masterpiece lives on as a kind of secular hymn.

Recordings

"White Christmas," As performed by Bing Crosby.

Words and music by Irving Berlin from Irving Berlin's "Holiday Inn", a 1942 Paramount Picture starring Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire and Marjorie Reynolds "White Christmas" is widely regarded as the best-selling single of all time. It was #1 for 11 weeks in 1942 and returned to #1 in 1945 and 1946. It has made the chart in every Christmas season but one from 1942 to 1962. Its success inspired the 1954 movie "White Christmas", starring Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye and Rosemary Clooney. Lyrics as recorded by Bing Crosby in 1942

The introductory verse was not included on the Bing Crosby recordings but is on the sheet music. Barbra Streisand (A Christmas Album), Mel Torme (Christmas Songs), and Neil Diamond (The Christmas Album, Vol. 1) include the introduction in their recorded versions.

Movies

Holiday Inn (Musical Comedy, 1942) A singer (Crosby) and a dancer (Astaire) flirt with women at the singer’s New England inn, open only on holidays. Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire, Marjorie Reynolds, Virginia Dale, Walter Abel, Louise Beavers. "White Christmas" won the Oscar for Best Song in 1943. "Holiday Inn" was also nominated for Best Scoring of a Musical Picture and  Best Original Story.

White Christmas (Musical comedy, 1954) Ex-Army buddies do a show with a sister act to save a general’s hotel in Vermont. Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye [after Fred Astaire had turned down the role], Rosemary Clooney, Vera-Ellen, Dean Jagger, Mary Wicks. Sig Ruman.