The World’s Most Popular Christmas Song
by Victor Parachin
What do Bing Crosby, Elvis Presley, Martina McBride, Alvin and the Chipmunks, The Beach Boys, Patty Loveless, The Osmonds, Perry Como, and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir have in common?
The answer: they have all sung and recorded the song “White Christmas.”
“White Christmas” is, in fact, the world’s most popular Christmas song having sold more than 125 million copies. It has been recorded in Dutch, Yiddish, Japanese, and even Swahili. “White Christmas’” status as the biggest-selling single has been challenged only once. Interestingly, the challenge came not from the Beatles or Elvis Presley, but by Elton John’s 1997 tribute to Princess Diana, “Candle in the Wind.”
“White Christmas” was written by Irving Berlin. It is a fascinating footnote in American cultural history that a Jewish songwriter wrote a universal best-selling song about a day celebrating the birth of Christianity’s founder. That time of year brought back memories of the tragic death of his infant son, Irving Berlin Jr., in December 1928.
Berlin’s inspiration may have come from a lonely and nostalgic northeastern transplant caught in Los Angeles during the holiday season. There, the palm trees and summerlike temperatures in December made him yearn for his more familiar winter cold weather and snow. Berlin’s song originally began with this introductory verse:
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
And I’m longing to be up north . . .
And then follows the line known and sung all around the planet every December: “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas . . . ”
Berlin’s labors over this song took place throughout the night on January in 1940. When completed, Berlin was excited about his creation, describing it as a “round” song, his term for those rare tunes which seem to flow from him effortlessly and seamlessly. “We working composers all too often, in the interest of expediency, sharpen our pencils, get out that square sheet of paper and become too slick,” he later explained. “Those forced efforts are ‘square’ songs. But sometimes as song is natural. We may start it to order for a specific scene or show, but our subconscious beings go to work and the song is just there.”
On the Monday morning when he completed “White Christmas,” Berlin rushed to his office proclaiming to Helmy Kresa, his transcriber. “I want you to take down a song I wrote over the weekend,” Berlin said. “Not only is it the best song I ever wrote, it’s the best song anybody ever wrote.” Initially skeptical, Helmy wrote down the notes as Berlin, sitting at a piano, began to play the song. While Helmy listened and transcribed, his skepticism evaporated. “As he started to sing, I knew right away that the way he juxtaposed the warmth of Southern California with the cold snow would make it a hit,” Helmy recalled, “and when he sang the chorus, I knew it really was the greatest song ever written. I was as thrilled as he was.”
The duo continued working, developing, and refining “White Christmas” over several weeks and then put it away. More than a year later, in April 1941, Berlin and film director Mark Sandrich were working on a new movie, Holiday Inn, when Berlin realized it would be the perfect forum for his Christmas song. On the Paramount Studios set was Walter Scharf, a staff music arranger assigned to Berlin. His task was to turn Berlin’s tunes into full-fledged orchestral numbers.
Scharf remembers Berlin tapping out “White Christmas” on a piano. Berlin only had two years of formal schooling and never learned to read or write music. Scharf recalls Berlin’s first performance as a “very rough” rendition. Bing Crosby, who overheard Berlin playing the piece, was not impressed. Later Scharf tried to ease Crosby’s concern, telling the singer he thought “White Christmas” would turn out well. Reportedly, Crosby rolled his eyes saying, “I hope so!”
Holiday Inn opened in New York on August 4, 1942. It featured Bing Crosby as a singer and Fred Astaire as a dancer. While Berlin was ecstatic and enthusiastic, the reviewers barely noticed or mentioned the production. Before long, however, the song “White Christmas” was becoming a hit. The movie won an Oscar for Best Song in 1943 and was also nominated for Best Scoring of a Musical Picture and Best Original Story. In fact, it became the song of the decade and continues to be the top selling Christmas song of all time. Crosby’s recording of it sold more than 30 million records. As a member of the USO’s traveling ensemble, Bing Crosby was asked by troops serving in World War II to sing “White Christmas” no matter what time of year it was.
In 1954, another movie was developed to further promote the song. The musical comedy was called White Christmas, featuring ex-army friends (Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye) doing a program to save their general’s resort hotel in Vermont. Supporting cast included Rosemary Clooney and Vera Ellen.
Some explain the popularity of “White Christmas” as a symbol of the values and aspirations of the World War II generation. Others describe it as a song that illustrates the deep assimilation and accommodation of Judaism into American culture. More than 150 different performers – who run the entire musical gamut – have recorded this piece. Crosby’s version alone was listed as the all-time top single by Guinness Book of World Records. When Elvis Presley recorded his version of “White Christmas,” Berlin was appalled. Unable to prevent the recording, he told his staff to begin calling radio stations across the country pleading with the stations not to play Presley’s version.
The mass popularity of “White Christmas” created a cultural paradigm shift in America. The Christmas season became an American holiday and not only a Christian one. White Christmas ushered in a golden era of other popular and secular American Christmas music such as “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “Silver Bells,” and “Frosty the Snowman.”
According to the American Society of Composers and Publishers, “White Christmas” remains the number one performed secular holiday song and is the most recorded song, with more than 500 versions in scores of languages.
In addition to “White Christmas,” Berlin produced more than 900 songs, 19 musicals, and scores for 18 movies. This Jewish immigrant from Siberia wrote music that defined both Broadway and Hollywood. However, it is “White Christmas” that continues to be recorded by new artists every year and continues to captivate new fans all around the world.
Victor Parachin lives in Oklahoma