America’s classic Christmas song was written by a Jewish immigrant.
Born in Russia with the name Israel Baline, he was the genius songwriter we know as Irving Berlin. He wrote “White Christmas” for the 1942 Hollywood musical “Holiday Inn,” starring Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire. On set, the movie’s hit number was presumed to be another Berlin composition, the Valentine’s Day song “Be Careful, It’s My Heart.” At first, it was. Then “White Christmas” captured the public’s imagination and hasn’t quite loosed its grip since.
As my colleague Mark Steyn puts it in a winsome podcast interview with Berlin’s daughter Mary Ellin Barrett, “Berlin loved America and he sang its seasons”: Easter (“Easter Parade”), July Fourth (“God Bless America”) and, of course, Christmas.
Some estimates point to sales of all versions of “White Christmas” topping 100 million. According to Albert and Shirley Menendez in their book on American Christmas songs, it made the charts for two decades straight, and as late as 1969 was the No. 1 Christmas song in the country. You are sure to hear it multiple times any Christmas season, on the radio, on TV or at the mall.
It is a song built on yearning. In lines at the beginning of the original version that aren’t usually performed, Berlin writes of being out in sunny California during the holiday: “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”
Steyn thinks that if America had entered World War II a few years earlier, the song might never have taken off. But 1942 was the year that American men were first shipped overseas, and it was released into a wave of homesickness. Mary Ellin Barrett says it first caught on with GIs in Great Britain. During the course of the war, it became the most requested song with Armed Forces Radio.
The irony of the son of a cantor writing the characteristic American Christmas song is obvious. Yet, his daughter says, “he believed in the great American Christmas.” As a child on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, he loved to look at the little Christmas tree of his Catholic neighbors. He and his Christian wife Ellin (theirs was a scandalous mixed marriage), put on elaborate, joyous Christmases for their three daughters. Not until later would they reveal that the day was a painful one for them because they had lost an infant child on Christmas.
Berlin knew he had something special with “White Christmas” as soon as he wrote it. He supposedly enthused to his secretary, “I just wrote the best song I’ve ever written — heck, I just wrote the best song that anybody’s ever written!” The song evokes the warmth of the hearth and the comforts of our Christmas traditions in a way that hasn’t stopped pulling at heartstrings yet.
Whereas Berlin’s composition has proved its enduring appeal across more than half a century, Justin Bieber’s or Cee Lo Green’s latest holiday numbers probably won’t. In an essay in The New Republic, Jonathan Fischer asks what has become of the golden age of pop Christmas songs between the 1930s and 1950s that not only gave us “White Christmas,” but “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” “The Christmas Song” and such lesser standards as “Silver Bells,” “Santa Baby” and “Frosty the Snowman.”
Well, the writing was better, the standards higher, the culture more charming and less abased. But Fischer notes something else — Christmas meant more. “As the religious purpose of Christmas has gotten increasingly remote,” he writes, “pop songwriters seem to have less to say about it” and “a traditional and sentimental version of Christmas … doesn’t appeal to the wider, more fractured popular culture the way it once did.”
Maybe we can’t make great Christmas songs anymore, but we can still listen to them, and that will have to be consolation enough. May your days be merry and bright.
Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.