Behind the Song: White Christmas

White Christmas is the most popular Christmas song of all time.White Christmas

The Irving Berlin song is reminiscing about an “old fashioned Christmas.”

Accounts vary as to when and where Berlin wrote the song.  He often stayed up all night writing or would ask his secretary to write down what he dictated.

Both La Quinta Hotel in La Quinta, California, while making the film Alexander’s Ragtime Band, and the Arizona Biltmore claims the song was written there in 1940.

Another popular version of the writing of the song says, Berlin “raced into his Manhattan office in January 1940 and asked his musical secretary to transcribe “The best song I ever wrote…the best song anybody ever wrote.”

Bing Crosby
Bing Crosby

Most likely parts of all of these stories are true, as he may have written a few lines here and there before tucking it away.  When the time came to make the film Holiday Inn, he remembered the song, pulled it out of his song trunk and finished the song.

Bing Crosby performed the song for the first time on The Kraft Music Hall radio show on Christmas Day in 1941.  The premier was just eight days after the bombing at Pearl Harbor.  The melancholy of the song, matched the feeling of the hurting country.

Little notice was taken of the premiere performance.

He later recorded the song with the John Scott Trotter Orchestra and the Ken Darby Singers on May 29, 1942.

Reports say that Crosby did not see anything special about the song at first.

The song, which was originally released in late July, was initially poorly received.  By the end of October 1942, the song topped the charts.

Part of the success was found as Armed Forces Radio played the song to cheer up the overseas troops.  The images of “snowy American, New Englandy Christmas really spoke to the longing, nostalgia, and homesickness

Christmas Scene from Holiday Inn
Christmas Scene from Holiday Inn

of the troops for their homeland and for the sweethearts and wives and mothers and fathers, they’d left behind. It was the enthusiasm of these troops that really propelled the song and made it a hit.”
The song found prominence in the musical, Holiday Inn.  The lead actress, Marjorie Reynolds, was originally scripted to sing the song.  However, in the final film version, Crosby and Reynolds sing the song together {although her voice is dubbed}.

Berlin believed in the making of the film, that the song for Valentine’s Day, Be Careful It’s My Heart, would be the breakout song of the film.

The 1942 Crosby recording of White Christmas was damaged due to frequent use.  Crosby re-recorded the song on March 18, 1947, with every effort made to reproduce the original recording.  This is the version heard today.

In 1954, the musical White Christmas, was made as a vehicle for Crosby and the song White Christmas.

Numerous other performers have recorded the song over the decades.

One little-known fact about the song is that there is a verse that accompanies the popular chorus.  Several more recent musical artists have performed the verse with the chorus.

The verse says:

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 am longing to be up North—


White Christmas movie cast
White Christmas movie cast

One interesting note, is that Irving Berlin, was a Jew and did not celebrate Christmas.  He did have his own traditions at Christmas, including visiting the grave of his three-week-old son, whom died on Christmas Day in 1928.

Another note of interest is that in 1975, during the Vietnam War, the American Army used the playing of White Christmas as a secret signal to instruct the American Soldiers to evacuate Saigon.

The version of White Christmas sung by Bing Crosby, has sold over 50 million copies, according to Guinness Book of World Records.

White Christmas scene
White Christmas scene