On the morning of Jan. 8, 1940, inveterate night owl Irving Berlin startled the staff in his midtown Manhattan office by bustling in bright and early and announcing to his longtime arranger Helmy Kresa: “I want you to take down a song I wrote over the weekend. Not only is it the best song I ever wrote, it’s the best song anybody ever wrote.” The song was “White Christmas.”
Berlin’s assessment of the tune’s quality may sound inflated, but by the quantitative standard he preferred, he was prescient: “White Christmas” would become the biggest hit among the approximately 1,500 songs he wrote, a monster by any measure. (“The mob is always right,” he was fond of saying.) To date, Bing Crosby’s 1942 recording of the number has sold over 50 million copies, making it the bestselling pop single of all time. The song has been recorded by some 500 artists and in several languages.
What’s the source of its extraordinary power?
Over the years, the tune has been a kind of musical Rorschach test, stirring strong and contradictory reactions. Novelist Philip Roth praised it backhandedly (along with Berlin’s “Easter Parade”) as an example of “schlockified Christianity,” with the power to defuse anti-Semitism. By contrast, the music writer Philip Furia called it “the counterpart to Robert Frost’s great modern poem, ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,’ which uses the simplest of rhymes and the barest of imagery to evoke a beautiful but melancholy scene.”
Even poet Carl Sandburg weighed in for the defense, writing in the midst of World War II: “We have learned to be a little sad and a little lonesome without being sickly about it. This feeling is caught in the song of a thousand jukeboxes and the tune whistled in streets and homes. ‘I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas.’ When we sing that we don’t hate anybody…. Way down under this latest hit of his Irving Berlin catches us where we love peace.”
Almost 80 years on, the song may catch us in entirely different ways. Could it have troubling racial overtones? Does it express privilege, or religious exclusion? Is it schlock? Is it poetry? And what’s it really about, anyway? Dozens of writers have poured thousands of words into analyzing the bridgeless 54-word chorus of this seemingly simple tune. Yet when it came to his music, Berlin, the ultimate pro, had no use for philosophizing. “People read a lot of things into that song that I didn’t put there,” he said.
To complicate the matter further, there is evidence that Berlin began composing “White Christmas” not over that January weekend in 1940 but “in 1938 or 1939 either in New York or possibly at the Arizona Biltmore Hotel in Phoenix or perhaps in both places,” according to musicologist Robert Kimball. Initially, the song seems to have sprung from simple homesickness — Berlin originally gave the song an introductory verse about the dislocation he felt in Hollywood, a place that rewarded his work richly but made him miss his native Manhattan acutely:
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 ….
Wisely, Crosby and the vast majority of the song’s interpreters omitted the verse, which detracts from the number’s universal appeal. Yet the chorus is still infused with a strong sense of nostalgia — the word comes from the Greek “nostos,” or homecoming, and “algia,” meaning pain or ache. The rocket engine behind the initial success of “White Christmas” was its huge popularity among millions of American soldiers and sailors far from home during World War II. The words “just like the ones I used to know” conjured a return to an idyllic childhood — one listeners may not have experienced, but somehow felt they had. The enigmatic lyrics, intertwined with the ineffably sad melody, engendered a sweet pain.
Berlin’s initial boast about the song may have been more bluster than he let on: “Much as I’d like to take a bow and say I anticipated [the tune’s] future success,” he told a reporter in 1954, “I must admit I didn’t. Maybe because it was so easy, comparatively, to write I didn’t realize its potential. I wrote it in two rather brief sessions and that’s fast for a song. Some take a lot more work.”
Berlin might not have understood the tune’s true power at first because he may not have fully realized what it meant to him. His early life was scarred by profound loss: He was 13 when his father died; 24 when he lost his young first wife to typhoid; and 40 when his only son, Irving Berlin Jr., died from crib death on Christmas morning 1928.
The holiday signified deep grief to the songwriter ever afterward.
Was Berlin somehow trying to exorcise this tragedy with this song? An intensely private man, he took great pains throughout his 60-year career to deny any connection between his most plangent compositions — “sob ballads,” he called them — and his personal life.
Yet many of his greatest songs — including “Blue Skies,” possibly the saddest song about happiness ever written — are tinged with melancholy, and “White Christmas” is no exception. For many, the Christmas season, and the holiday itself, represent unattainable ideals — of peace, of perfect generosity, of comfort and joy. Every human has experienced loss, and this darkest time of the year can call loss to mind in the keenest way.
Berlin knew this. And he well understood the wish that it were otherwise. The song is, after all, only a dream.
James Kaplan’s latest book is “Irving Berlin: New York Genius.”