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Friday, July 29, 2022

July 29, 2022: Christmas (Songs) in July: “White Christmas”

[On July 30, 1942, Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” was released. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy Crosby’s classic and other Christmas and holiday songs, for a little flavor of the season here in mid-summer!]

On a couple reasons for the enduring success of one of history’s biggest songs.

You could probably win a lot of trivia contests with this knowledge (I certainly didn’t know it before researching this post), but Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” is the best-selling single of all time, having sold more than 50 million copies worldwide (and again, that’s just of Crosby’s version; when you add in the many covers over the subsequent eight decades the song has sold well above 100 million). Written by one of the 20th century’s greatest songwriters, Irving Berlin, for the 1942 musical film Holiday Inn (starring Crosby and Fred Astaire), the song was first performed live by Crosby on an NBC radio show on Christmas Day, 1941, recorded by Crosby and the Ken Darby Singers in May 1942, and then officially released on July 30, 1942 as part of six records’ worth of music from the film (with “White Christmas” eventually winning an Academy Award for Best Original Song). Berlin seems to have known he had something special from the jump, supposedly telling his secretary after penning the song in 1940, “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.”

I don’t want to disagree with the great Irving B., and I certainly think “White Christmas” is an excellent song; but to my mind, there have to be other explanations besides simple quality for what made and has continued to make this particular Christmas tune so stunningly popular. Here I’ll consider two, one textual and one contextual. Textually, I think “White Christmas” offers a particularly succinct, unique, and potent expression of an emotion about which I’ve written many times before in this space: nostalgia. From its opening lines, “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas/Just like the ones I used to know,” the song taps into that kind of nostalgia for childhood ideals (to which of course Christmas and all holidays always already connect). In that same verse Berlin implicitly connects that nostalgia to other Christmas carols like the ones I wrote about on Tuesday, with the lines “and children listen/To hear sleigh bells in the snow.” But at the same time, much of the rest of the song is overtly forward-looking and hopeful, linking the act of writing Christmas cards to a holiday wish that “all” the audience’s (for those cards and of the song alike) “days” will “be merry and bright.” That hopeful nostalgia, that forward-looking wistfulness, is to my mind quite unique, and makes this Christmas classic stand out in that crowded field to be sure.

Since “White Christmas” has remained so enduringly popular for 80 years, and across so many covers, clearly there is something in those lyrics (as well as the tune) that has hit audiences from many different periods and places. But of course it had to get popular initially as well, and on that note I would say that there’s a particular early 1940s in America context that helps explain why “White Christmas” hit so hard: World War II. When Crosby first performed the song on Christmas Day 1941, it was less than 3 weeks after the Pearl Harbor bombings; when the song and film formally debuted in 1942, the US had entered the war in both the Pacific and European fronts. Neither the film nor the song makes any overt reference to the war, although since filming was ongoing when Pearl Harbor was attacked a July 4th scene in the movie was expanded to include a more overt tribute to the military. But in such a fraught and threatened historical moment, I’d say that the aforementioned emotional combination at the heart of “White Christmas”—nostalgia for better and more peaceful days, and a hope for a brighter future that can echo them—offered a potent salve to American audiences indeed. In any case, a good reminder that Christmas and holiday songs are never limited in their effects and meanings to that season.

July Recap this weekend,


PS. What do you think? Other holiday songs you’d analyze?

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