For the past sixty-plus years, folks around North America, and perhaps the rest of the world, enter into the month of December "dreaming of a white Christmas" even though the odds for one are long in many areas of the United States. The sentiments became a part of the popular culture in 1942 when crooner Bing Crosby introduced the song White Christmas, written by famed composer Irving Berlin in 1940, in the 1942 musical Holiday Inn. In the film, he sings the Oscar-winning song in a duet with Marjorie Reynolds. But as a single record, Crosby's solo version sold more than fifty million copies. Prior to White Christmas, secular Christmas songs were not popular. Today, they top the most heard of the holiday music.
Winter Begins by Keith C. Heidorn,
Watercolour Painting on Paper
©2006, All Rights Reserved, Artist's Collection.
As the story goes, Berlin, a Russian-Jewish immigrant, wrote the song in early 1940. One of the Tin Pan Alley/Broadway songwriters, he had experienced great difficulty writing a serious Christmas song, then came up with a more light-hearted theme. It was often Irving's custom to work all night. The following morning, he went to his office and told his musical secretary, "Grab your pen and take down this song. Not only is it the best song I ever wrote, it's the best song anybody ever wrote."
His original verse poked fun at a Southern Californian who longs for the "traditional" Christmas he had remembered in climes not filled with palm trees and orange groves.
"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. "
Berlin would later drop that verse and build a new one around the now-famous chorus.
The song filled a yearning for an idealized New England past "just like the ones I used to know" that conjured up a Currier and Ives picture of the joys of sleigh rides and snowflakes amid the cozy warmth of happy homes and blazing hearths so desired during this time of world unrest. The singer recalls the past beauty of a day "Where the treetops glisten and children listen to hear sleigh bells in the snow." Interestingly, it is rather more sad than joyous compared to the raucous Frosty the Snowman and Santa Claus Is Coming To Town or image-rich Winter Wonderland, for example.
It has been said that Berlin hated the holiday. If so, he had reason; his infant son Irving Jr, born earlier that month, was found dead in his crib on Christmas Day 1928. When Irving Berlin died at age 101, he had written over 1,250 during his sixty year career including: Alexander's Ragtime Band, Easter Parade, Blue Skies, Puttin’ on the Ritz, and God Bless America.
Crosby was also the first to publicly perform the song, doing so on his top-rated radio show The Kraft Music Hall on the CBS Radio Network in December 1941. Crosby would then record the song for Decca Records in May of the following year with the John Scott Trotter Orchestra and the Ken Darby Singers, reportedly in 18 minutes. When released, the song rose to become a monster hit. It topped the pop charts for eleven weeks in 1942, then returned to the top spot in the post-war holiday seasons of 1945 and 1946 the only single recording to have three separate runs atop the US charts. It made the charts every Christmas season but one from 1942 to 1962.
During the intervening combat years, it remained popular for its comforting images of home and happiness for many GIs and their families back home. Ironically, the version we hear today is not the original recording. The master for that one wore out due to its frequent use. Decca called back Crosby, the Trotter Orchestra and the Darby Singers to re-record the song in March 1947.
The Guinness Book of World Records recognizes Crosby's White Christmas single as the top seller of all-time, having sold more than fifty million copies. It also lists the song itself as a 100-million seller when all versions of the song, including on albums, are counted. It has been recorded by artists ranging from Elvis Presley to Air Supply; from Burl Ives to Charlie Parker; the Crash Test Dummies to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Internationally, it has found homes in hundreds of recordings in Dutch, Hungarian, Japanese, Swahili, and Yiddish.
A dozen years after Holiday Inn, Crosby starred in another musical named after the title song. White Christmas. It starred Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney, and Vera-Ellen, and became the greatest grossing film of 1954: $30 million in 1954, which adjusted to 2004 dollars totals $233 million.
When White Christmas was broadcast over the radio in Vietnam on 30 April 1975, those not in the known must have thought it odd. But the recording was a pre-arranged secret signal to begin the US evacuation of Saigon.
In 2002, the Library of Congress selected the original 1942 version to be one of 50 recordings chosen that year for the National Recording Registry.
"May All Your Christmases Be White."
Keith C. Heidorn, PhD, THE WEATHER DOCTOR,
December 1, 2006
Photos courtesy of NOAA Historic NWS Collection
White Christmas ©2006, Keith C. Heidorn, PhD. All Rights Reserved.
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