How White Christmas Became an Iconic Holiday Song

On this day in history, December 25, 1941, Bing Crosby performed White Christmas for the first time

Created by songwriter Irving Berlin and singer Bing Crosby, White Christmas became an instant hit when it premiered in the movie Holiday Inn in 1942.

As a winter storm is set to blanket much of the nation in snow, many Americans will indeed experience a white Christmas. 

When those first few notes of the song White Christmas begin to play, your heart begins to melt. Then, the textured tones of Bing Crosby’s crooning voice fill the air and wrap around you like a warm blanket.

Dreaming of a White Christmas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

White Christmas is one of the most iconic songs of the holiday season and it’s easy to see—and hear—why. Many artists, from Elvis and The Supremes to Dolly Parton and the Flaming Lips have created their renditions paying homage to the nostalgic tune.

But woven within that tune are whispers of the time, a time of global change and uncertainty, and how Hollywood and musical legends found a way to create a wistful escape.

The dreamer

It seems only fitting that the melancholy melody of the holiday tune was sung by one of the most beloved voices of the 20th century.

“At the time that Bing Crosby recorded White Christmas, he was the biggest star in the country, perhaps in the world,” said Matthew Barton, the curator of recorded sound at the Library of Congress.

“He was a huge success on records, he had a weekly radio show, and he was a major film star,” Barton added. “He really was just a towering figure and had been for a number of years.”

According to Barton, Crosby had already been recording Christmas songs as a band singer in the late 1920s and then he recorded the songs on his own in the 1930s.

“They were big hits,” Barton said. “And they became hits again every winter.”

“(Crosby’s) voice, his personality were very much, very closely associated with Christmas and Christmas music at the time,” Barton added.

Dreaming of a White Christmas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The man behind the curtain

While Crosby might be the most recognizable name associated with White Christmas, another cultural heavy hitter was behind the song’s creation: Irving Berlin.

“Berlin wrote constantly,” Barton said. “It was not unusual for him to have quite a few songs just on hand if the occasion demanded them.”

According to Barton, Berlin wrote White Christmas in late 1939-early 1940–by that point, he had been writing hit songs for more than 25 years.

“(White Christmas) came from an idea he’d had several years earlier to do a musical revue, a series of numbers built around days in the year—holidays, specifically important days.”

Berlin, who had also recently written God Bless America by that point, presented his idea for a holiday musical revue to Hollywood film director Mark Sandrich.

“They started developing a whole story which you can now see in the film Holiday Inn which is sort of framed by the song White Christmas,” Barton said.

Dreaming of a White Christmas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Showtime

When Holiday Inn was released in August 1942, it was an instant hit—and so was White Christmas, despite the movie’s summer premiere.

“It wasn’t really a seasonal song, but that was the one that clicked with people,” Barton said. “It was just obvious from the get-go.”

“Berlin said he knew it all along,” he added. “He thought it was the best thing he’d written to that point.”

By September, the popularity of White Christmas grew as evidenced by growing sales of the song’s sheet music.

“People just wanted this song, they wanted to hear it, and they wanted to sing it and play it themselves,” Barton said.

Come October, it tops the charts.

“You’ve got a Christmas song and it’s number one in October—I’m not sure that anyone else has ever accomplished that,” said Barton.

According to Barton, White Christmas remained at No. 1 for three months.

Dreaming of a White Christmas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Notes of nostalgia

Probably one of the most striking aspects of the song’s popularity is its somber, nostalgic sentiment.

In Holiday Inn, Bing Crosby’s character is down on his luck on Christmas Eve as he dreams of a white Christmas.

“If you see the film, you know it’s very much about the loss and loneliness that he’s feeling at the time,” Barton said. “It just invokes this image of being so far from where you want to be.”

This image is also set upon a dark backdrop outside the movie. 

When Berlin wrote White Christmas in late 1939-early 1940, the country was right on the heels of the Great Depression and on the cusp of World War II.

“The war had started but we weren’t in it,” Barton said. “It was something that’s very much in the headlines and very much on people’s minds.”

By the time Holiday Inn premiered with White Christmas in tow in 1942, the U.S. had joined the war. 

According to Barton, the country’s involvement may have informed how Crosby sang the song, what he was thinking about, and how people listened to the song.

Dreaming of a White Christmas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Somber songcraft

For Berlin, the inspiration for writing such a somber song may have been influenced by his personal feelings of loneliness.

“He was a show business veteran of many decades and it was not unusual for him to be away from home or to be working long days that everybody else was just relaxing and enjoying themselves,” Barton said.

According to Barton, Berlin also had sad memories of Christmas Day having lost an infant son on the holiday.

“He said that he visited that son’s grave every year on the 25th of December,” Barton said. 

Berlin was also well aware of the universal nature of distance and loss, whether of loved ones or of times long past, and hoping for a brighter future.

An Arizona Christmas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The canon of culture

Eighty-two years have passed since Holiday Inn introduced the public to White Christmas—a song that has resonated with countless listeners worldwide.

In 2002, it became one of the first songs added to the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry. 

According to Barton, the registry is an ongoing initiative of the Library of Congress to recognize and draw attention to, popularize, and promote the preservation of recordings that are historically, aesthetically, and technically significant.

Given the significance of White Christmas, its placement in the registry comes as no surprise.

“I feel that any good music, good records, that there’s always a good story behind them,” Barton said. “And that’s certainly the case with White Christmas.”

Worth Pondering…

Christmas is the day that holds all time together.

—Alexander Smith

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Christmas delivers more traditions, festivities, and entertainment than all other holidays combined.

During the Christmas season, we sing traditional carols and hymns. In churches and homes, many set up nativity scenes, a practice created in 1223 by St. Francis of Assisi.

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We also participate in secular holiday traditions. Originally modeled on a fourth-century bishop, St. Nicholas of Myra, Santa Claus has long been an icon of the Christmas season. We set up and decorate spruce and fir trees in our living rooms, attach stockings to the mantle, send out Christmas cards, buy sleigh loads of presents, and tell the little ones about Santa’s elves and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

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The world of arts and entertainment exuberantly joins these festivities. We read books such as Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol and share poems with our children like Clement Moore’s The Night Before Christmas or Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Hollywood has pumped out scores of Christmas movies ranging from classics like “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “Miracle on 34th Street” to comedies, religious stories, and Hallmark romances.

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Meanwhile, families practice their own holiday customs. That newly wedded couple must decide whether they’re going to open presents on Christmas Eve or Christmas morning. Some families watch “A Christmas Story,” while others stick to “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.” Some repeat the Thanksgiving menu of turkey and stuffing and sweet potatoes for their holiday meal while others enjoy roast beef, goose, or ethnic foods.

Another Christmas tradition: The Story of the Poinsettia

And then, of course, there is the music.

Merry Christmas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Songs, songs, and more songs

It’s not really Christmas until the gang from Pentatonix releases new material and this year they’ve stretched the definition of Christmas material.

The group offers classics like “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” and “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear” and also tackle songs not often caroled like Stevie Wonder’s “I Just Called to Say I Love You” and Joni Mitchell’s “River.” And then they give “I Saw Three Ships” and “Frosty the Snowman” a rhythmic beat.

Merry Christmas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are so many Christmas songs and so many different artists who have recorded them that certain radio stations fill their December air time with this fare without strain or repetition. Load copies of all these recordings into Santa’s sleigh and even that bearded wonder and his 12 reindeer might have trouble making lift-off.

Merry Christmas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Some of these compositions are more than 1,000 years old while others have popped up in just the past decade. Some celebrate the coming of a savior like “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”, O Holy Night”, and “Go Tell It on the Mountain.” Others center our attention on the symbols of the season like “O Christmas Tree” and “Here Comes Santa Claus.” Some take a turn toward romance, as in “All I Want for Christmas Is You” and “Christmas Every Day.” There are even silly Christmas songs: “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” “All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth,” and “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer.”

Merry Christmas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

And you don’t need to be Irish to enjoy “Christmas in Killarney”:

  • The holly green, the ivy green/The prettiest picture you’ve ever seen/Is Christmas in Killarney/With all of the folks at home/It’s nice you know, to kiss your beau/while cuddling under the mistletoe/And Santa Claus, you know of course/Is one of the boys from home
  • The door is always open/The neighbors pay a call/And Father John, before he’s gone/Will bless the house and all/Our Hearts are light, our spirits bright/We’ll celebrate our joy tonight/It’s Christmas in Killarney/With all of the folks at home
Merry Christmas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Songs and carols and how they came to be

Behind many of these songs are intriguing stories of their creation and their meaning. Here are just a few of these histories.

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O Come, O Come, Emmanuel

“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” has its roots in the monasteries of the ninth century. That early version was in Latin, of course, and is just as beautiful as the English we sing today. Originally, monks or nuns chanted verses and psalms from the Old Testament anticipating the arrival of a savior. Discipleship Ministries of the Methodist Church offers this interesting observation on the original arrangement. Each of the antiphons (a short chant in Christian ritual, sung as a refrain) began with the words below:

  • O Sapentia (Wisdom)
  • O Adonai (Hebrew word for God)
  • O Radix Jesse (stem or root of Jesse)
  • O Clavis David (key of David)
  • O Oriens (dayspring)
  • O Rex genitium (King of the Gentiles)
  • O Emmanuel
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By the seventh antiphon—O Emmanuel—the first letter of these words read in opposite order gave listeners an acrostic “Ero Cras,” which means “I will be present tomorrow.”

Another song from the Middle Ages, “In Dulci Jubilo,” we now know as “Good Christian Men, Rejoice.” German folklore holds that Heinrich Seuse composed this carol sometime around 1328 after he had heard angels singing it.

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Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht

“Silent Night” has a story that is almost as beautiful as the carol itself.

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Just after the end of the Napoleonic Wars, a young Austrian priest, Joseph Mohr, took a walk on a winter’s evening and was struck by the peace and beauty of the snow-covered village below him. He wrote down the words for “Silent Night,” and two years later, in need of a hymn for Christmas Eve, he paid a visit to his friend Franz Gruber, a school teacher who was also the church’s choirmaster and asked him to compose the music for his lyrics.

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That night, at Midnight Mass, Gruber and Father Mohr, playing on the guitar, gave the world one of its most beloved carols.

Eventually, “Silent Night” was translated into more than 300 languages and is today sung around the world. One fascinating historical note: During World War I’s Christmas Eve truce of 1914, soldiers from both sides of no man’s land gathered and sang the carol in English and German.

Merry Christmas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Secular Songs of the Season

The past 100 years have seen an explosion of non-religious holiday songs. Of these, “White Christmas” remains one of the most popular, and again the music comes with a special story.

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The Russian-born Irving Berlin who gave us such hits as “God Bless America” and “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” also wrote “White Christmas.” Though the Jewish composer didn’t celebrate this holiday, some have speculated he may have written the song in memory of his 3-week-old son who died in 1928 on Christmas Day. For years afterward, Berlin and his wife annually visited their son’s grave on that day. Certainly, the opening lines and the slow, rather melancholy tune might point to such a loss:

  • I’m dreaming of a white Christmas/Just like the ones I used to know/Where the treetops glisten and children listen/ To hear sleigh bells in the snow
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In 1941, Bing Crosby first brought the newly published “White Christmas” to the airwaves just days after the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor. During the war, whenever Crosby appeared overseas to entertain the troops, the soldiers, again and again, requested this song.

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“I hesitated about doing it because invariably it caused such a nostalgic yearning among the men, that it made them sad,” Crosby said in an interview. “Heaven knows, I didn’t come that far to make them sad. For this reason, several times I tried to cut it out of the show, but these guys just hollered for it.”

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Those men wanted that reminder of home and what they were fighting for.

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Cultural Bonds

If we explore the origins and histories of such songs and carols, we find that many of them come with these special stories. In “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” for example, some believe that the gifts mentioned in the song, from a partridge in a pear tree to 12 drummers drumming, refer to certain symbols of the Catholic faith while others contend this strange array of presents derives from a child’s memory game.

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While learning these stories can be fun and instructive, it’s the music we know and love. It’s a small bit of that glue that binds us together as a people. We would be hard-pressed to find a child, or an adult for that matter, who had never heard of Rudolph or The Grinch. Whatever our religious beliefs, we’re familiar with “Silent Night” and “Joy to the World.” We may not know the words, but we can hum along with songs like “Little Drummer Boy” and “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.”

Another Christmas tradition: O Christmas Tree, Don’t Fall Off my SUV

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How mainstream is your taste in Christmas music?

Compare your faves to the most-streamed Christmas songs on Spotify this holiday season:

  • “All I Want for Christmas Is You” by Mariah Carey (written and recorded in 1994)
  • “Last Christmas” by Wham! (another 1994 recording)
  • “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” (written and recorded in 1951)
  • “Jingle Bell Rock” by Bobby Helms (recorded in 1957)
  • “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” by Brenda Lee (recorded in 1958)
Merry Christmas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

To my readers, I’ll conclude by way of one more song title: “We Wish You a Merry Christmas!”

Merry Christmas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before! What if Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store. What if Christmas…perhaps…means a little bit more!

―Dr. Seuss, How the Grinch Stole Christmas