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December 1, 2021

Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas”: The Melancholy Megahit


I’m dreaming of a white Christmas,
Just like the ones I used to know,
Where the treetops 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 Christmases be white.”

These 54 words by Irving Berlin amount to the taut lyrical masterpiece that he himself hailed as “the greatest song anybody ever wrote.”

While the exact location where “White Christmas” was written has been the subject of some debate (both the La Quinta Hotel in California and the Arizona Biltmore claim to be the birthplace of the classic tune), the essential details remain the same. Berlin had signed with Paramount Pictures to write music and lyrics for Holiday Inn, a movie musical comedy about an inn that opened only on public holidays. He was able to repurpose his springtime secular classic “Easter Parade” for the same holiday, and penned the romantic “Be Careful, It’s My Heart” for Valentine’s Day with ease. But the task of writing the quintessential American Christmas song proved to be the biggest challenge for the Russian-born Jewish immigrant whose life up to that point featured nary a Christmas card or snowy sleigh bell.

It is appropriate, then, that the song takes us into a dream of yuletides past that may or may not have ever even existed. The tender lyrics draw the listener into a trance of peaceful nostalgia as Berlin builds a space for us that is undeniably melancholy but merry. In later years, discussing the tune’s success, the songsmith quipped, “People read a lot of things into that song that I didn’t put there.” Therein lies the brilliance of his lyric and what makes it even more of a gift. The song “White Christmas” is a passageway to memories not even specifically of the Christmas holiday itself, but of comforting and cherished reminiscences of yesteryear with loved ones.

With the song now committed to the written page, and Berlin’s trust in its potential to set the world on its ear, all he needed was a singer. He possessed one of the starriest and most robust Rolodexes in Hollywood, so it was natural that he sought out the very best: the honey-voiced crooner Bing Crosby. With 38 #1 hits to his name (compare that to the 24 #1 hits by The Beatles), Bing was to singing what Irving was to composing. He also happened to be signed on to headline Holiday Inn – a match made in movie mogul heaven – where “White Christmas” would eventually find its film premiere. It was up to Bing to deliver the goods with the voice that Louis Armstrong famously described as “gold being poured out of a cup.”

Fate would have it that this song premiered precisely when American audiences longed for comforting imagery that “White Christmas” evoked. It premiered eighty years ago on December 25, 1941, on the Kraft Music Hall, a popular radio variety show hosted by Crosby. Only weeks before, the American public had been shaken by the attack on Pearl Harbor and President Roosevelt’s subsequent announcement that the United States was at war. In the war’s intervening years, “White Christmas” would serve as a staple of USO performances for troops serving overseas, offering solace in the yearning for home and a hope for peace. 

Two seemingly unrelated quotes from Irving Berlin perfectly encapsulate the success of “White Christmas.” That the song was “a publishing business in itself,” and “History makes songs.”  Only in this case, the song makes history. In 1942, a year after its radio premiere, Crosby stepped into a Decca recording booth and recorded the viola-voiced version that we hear in shopping malls and Spotify holiday playlists today. Since that date, it has been recorded over 500 times. Michael Bublé, Gwen Stefani, Frank Sinatra and Bette Midler count among the talents who have sung Berlin’s supple serenade to great success. The song has been recorded in several languages including Dutch, Japanese, Swahili, and even Yiddish. Irving Berlin would have certainly approved!

The historic Bing Crosby recording by Decca, confirmed by the Guinness Book of World Records, is the best-selling single record of all time.

It has retained that title for over 50 years.

”White Christmas” copyright 1940 (renewed) and 1942 by Irving Berlin. Lyrics reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

For more information about White Christmas and other great Irving Berlin shows, visit Concord Theatricals in the US or UK!