By Brad Dison
Christmas is a special time of year. For most of us, just hearing the word Christmas evokes warm feelings of homes decorated with evergreen trees, countless twinkling Christmas lights, festively wrapped packages of bright colors, wonderful smells emanating from the kitchen, beautiful Christmas music which most people restrict to the holiday season, and snow for those who live in a cooler climate. Everyone else can only dream of a white Christmas.
In Los Angeles, California, Irving Berlin had an idea for a musical romantic comedy called Holiday Inn. In his pitch to Paramount Pictures, he told executives that the lead character, Jim Hardy, owned an inn which was only open for business on holidays. The challenge for Irving was to write a song for each holiday.
Many music lovers consider Irving Berlin the greatest songwriter in American history. At Irving’s televised 100th birthday celebration Walter Cronkite declared to the audience “Irving Berlin helped write the story of this country by capturing the best of who we are and the dreams that shape our lives…Since 1906, Irving Berlin has written over 1,500 songs, and it is there we find out history, our holidays, our homes and our hearts.” Irving’s hit songs include “God Bless America,” “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” “Blue Skies,” “Cheek to Cheek,” “Heat Wave,” “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm,” and a host of others.
Irving dictated songs for Holiday Inn to his secretary including “Happy Holiday,” “Abraham,” “Easter Parade,” “Let’s Start the New Year Right,” “Be Careful, It’s My Heart,” among others. Executives at Paramount Pictures were certain that “Be Careful, It’s My Heart,” a love song for the Valentine’s Day holiday, would be the hit of the movie. Irving was not so sure. He had a song idea for the Christmas Day holiday that he thought was quite good.
Remember, Irving was in Los Angeles, where cold, snowy winters are rare. He dictated the opening verse to his secretary, which is usually omitted in recordings:
“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…”
Once Irving finished dictating the song for the Christmas holiday, he reportedly told his secretary “It’s the best song I’ve ever written. It’s the best song anyone has ever written.”
Paramount Pictures cast Bing Crosby as Jim Hardy, the owner of Holiday Inn. Irving and Bing went over the songs for Holiday Inn and exchanged some ideas. Bing paid special attention to “Be Careful, It’s My Heart,” based on the Paramount executives’ expectation that it would be the hit. When they came to “White Christmas,” Bing simply responded, “I don’t think we have any problems with that one, Irving.” They moved on.
On May 29, 1942, Bing Crosby, backed by the John Scott Trotter Orchestra and the Ken Darby Singers, recorded “White Christmas” for Holiday Inn in just eighteen minutes, a small amount of time for such an important song. In July, 1942, Decca released the soundtrack for Holiday Inn a full month before the film’s release. As Paramount executives expected, “Be Careful, It’s My Heart” overshadowed the other songs on the album. In October, however, “White Christmas” reached the top of charts and remained there.
In the Fall of 1942, America was in the midst of the second World War. Many of the soldiers found comfort in “White Christmas” because it reminded them of the place they wanted to be above all others, home. American GIs flooded the Armed Forces Network, a radio broadcasting network for the United States military, with requests for “White Christmas.”
Back in the United States, people flocked to stores to purchase a copy of “White Christmas.” In just under five years, shoppers had purchased so many copies of “White Christmas” that the original master recording wore out. On March 19, 1947, Bing Crosby, once again backed by the John Scott Trotter Orchestra and the Ken Darby Singers, returned to the studio to re-record “White Christmas” note-for-note. The version you hear today is the re-recording.
In 1949, Bing Crosby released a compilation of holiday songs called Merry Christmas which featured “White Christmas.” It has never gone out of print. By 1954, “White Christmas” had become so popular that Paramount Pictures released a movie with the same title starring Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney, and Vera-Ellen. The movie was immediately successful, and sales of the song remained strong.
Through the years, worldwide sales of Bing’s recordings of “White Christmas” have reached numbers in excess of 50 million. Subsequent recordings have reached sales in excess of 100 million. “White Christmas” remains one of the most covered songs in history. According to sales records, Irving had written, as he suspected, “the best song anyone has ever written.” However, Irving Berlin, the man who wrote the best-selling song in history, which just happened to be a Christmas song, did not celebrate Christmas. He was Jewish.