Virtually every American is familiar with the song “White Christmas,” which Bing Crosby first performed on Christmas Day 1941 and released as a recording the next year. It spent 11 weeks at #1 on the Billboard Chart, and is, according to the Guinness Book of Records, the number one selling single of all-time. No song of pop megastars like Elvis, the Beatles, Frank Sinatra, or (mercifully) Barbara Streisand can approach the estimated 50 million copies of Crosby’s version sold, or the 100 million copies overall.
But what makes the song so popular? At first glance, the lyrics to “White Christmas” seem bordering on infantile:
I’m dreaming of a white Christmas
Just like the ones I used to know
Where the tree tops 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
But the lyrics are dripping with nostalgia. A line like, “just like the ones I used to know” immediately transports the listener back to halcyon Christmas moments, perhaps experienced during childhood, that will never be recaptured. Furthermore, I suspect that an American listening to the song in 1941-1942 was especially racked with a sense of wanting to recapture the past. The nation was, after all, a recent entrant into World War II, the outcome of which was still very much in doubt. A “White Christmas” is a symbol for the ideal Christmas.
Although sung by Crosby, the writer of “White Christmas” was Irving Berlin, perhaps the most famous and successful American songwriter of the 20thcentury. George Gershwin, who many label the indispensable American musician, called Berlin “the greatest songwriter that has ever lived.”
Berlin was responsible for some of the biggest hits of the 20th century, as well as the scores for 19 Broadway shows and 18 Hollywood films.
Berlin’s story is quintessentially American. Born in the Russian Empire in 1888, Berlin eventually emigrated to America and settled in the poverty and chaos of Manhattan’s lower east side. His early life in America was captured well in his obituary by the New York Times in 1989:
Izzy, as he came to be called, became a newspaper boy, hawking The Evening Journal. On his first day on the job, according to Woollcott, the boy stopped to look at a ship about to put out for China. So entranced was he that he failed to notice a swinging crane, and he was knocked into the river. When he was fished out, after going down for the third time, he was still holding in his clenched fist the five pennies that constituted his first day’s receipts, his contribution to the family budget.
Young Izzy found his first steady job on the Bowery, looking after Blind Sol, a singing beggar. He led him through the saloons, looked after his receipts and sang some sentimental ballads himself in his childish treble. His ambition was to earn enough money to buy a rocking chair for his mother.
He was soon on his own, singing for tips at bars off the Bowery, plugging songs at Tony Pastor’s Music Hall in Union Square and finally, in 1906 when he was 18, working as a singing waiter at the Pelham Cafe in Chinatown. When the bar closed for the night, young Berlin would sit at a piano in the back and pick out tunes.
Berlin’s life was, according to the Times, a “classic rags-to-riches story that he never forgot could have happened only in America.” That sentiment showed up in his music. “My ambition is to reach the heart of the average American,” Mr. Berlin once said, “not the highbrow nor the lowbrow but that vast intermediate crew which is the real soul of the country. The highbrow is likely to be superficial, overtrained, supersensitive. The lowbrow is warped, subnormal. My public is the real people.”
As a recording, “White Christmas” shines on the strength of Crosby’s tender baritone. The lyrics aren’t explicitly about America, but the song is nonetheless an appeal to the American heart and the experiences of the ordinary American. There’s a reason “White Christmas” is the most popular song of all-time: Berlin’s love and understanding of his country informed a body of work that has for decades made our days merry and bright.