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”
“Grab your pen,” Irving Berlin was said to have ordered his secretary, “and take down this song. I just wrote the best song I’ve ever written! Heck, I just wrote the best song that anybody’s ever written!”
According to Wikipedia, the accounts of the origin of the song “White Christmas” vary, but this version says Berlin was sitting beside the pool at the Biltmore Hotel in Phoenix, Ariz., when the song came to him.
Of all the popular tunes written about Christmas, “White Christmas” is by far the most popular and the most sentimental. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the version sung by Bing Crosby is the best-selling single of all time, with estimated sales in excess of 50 million copies worldwide.
Crosby gave the first public performance of the song on his NBC radio show,The Kraft Music Hall on Christmas Day, 1941 and the recording is not believed to have survived. He recorded the song with the John Scott Trotter Orchestra and the Ken Darby Singers for Decca Records in just 18 minutes on May 29, 1942, and it was released on July 30 as part of an album of six 78-rpm songs from the film “Holiday Inn.” Crosby didn’t think there was anything special about the song. He just said “I don’t think we have any problems with that one, Irving.”
The movie was released in August and “White Christmas” initially performed poorly and was overshadowed by the film’s first hit song, “Be Careful, It’s My Heart.” By the end of October 1942, however, “White Christmas” topped the Your Hit Parade chart. It remained in that position until well into 1943. Wikipedia notes: “The mix of melancholy — ‘just like the ones I used to know’ — with comforting images of home — ‘where the treetops glisten’ — resonated especially strongly with listeners during World War II. The Armed Forces Network was flooded with requests for the song.
In 1942 alone, Crosby’s recording spent 11 weeks on top of the Billboard charts. The original version also hit number one on the Harlem Hit Parade for three weeks, Crosby’s first-ever appearance on the black-oriented chart. Re-released by Decca, the single returned to the #1 spot during the holiday seasons of 1945 and 1946, becoming the only single with three separate runs at the top of the U.S. charts. The recording became a chart perennial, reappearing annually on the pop chart 20 separate times before Billboard Magazine created a distinct Christmas chart for seasonal releases.
Following its prominence in the musical, “Holiday Inn,” the composition won the Academy Award for Best Original Song. In the film, Bing Crosby sings “White Christmas” as a duet with actress Marjorie Reynolds, though her voice was dubbed by Martha Mears. This now-familiar scene was not the moviemakers’ initial plan; in the script as originally conceived, Reynolds, not Crosby, was to sing the song. [But anyone who’s seen that scene knows it was absolutely the right choice and just leaves feminine hearts aflutter.]
The familiar version of “White Christmas” most often heard today is not the one Crosby recorded in 1942. He was called to Decca studios on March 18, 1947, to re-record the track; the 1942 master had become damaged due to its frequent use. Efforts were made to exactly reproduce the original recording session, and Crosby was again backed by the Trotter Orchestra and the Darby Singers. Even so, there are subtle differences in the orchestration, most notably the addition of a celesta and flutes to brighten up the introduction.
Crosby was dismissive of his role in the song’s success, saying later that “a jackdaw with a cleft palate could have sung it successfully.” But Crosby was associated with it for the rest of his career. Another Crosby vehicle — the 1954 musical White Christmas — was the highest-grossing film of 1954.
Crosby’s “White Christmas” single has been credited with selling 50 million copies, the most by any release and therefore it is the biggest-selling single worldwide of all time. The Guinness Book of World Records 2009 Edition lists the song as a 100-million seller, encompassing all versions of the song, including albums. Crosby’s holiday collection Merry Christmas was first released as an LP in 1949, and has never been out-of-print since.
“ItsRanked” ranked Crosby’s “White Christmas” as the number one Christmas song on its Top 40 Christmas Songs of all time. In 1999, National Public Radio included it in the “NPR 100,” which sought to compile the one hundred most important American musical works of the 20th century. Crosby’s version of the song also holds the distinction of being ranked #2 on the “Songs of the Century” list, behind only Judy Garland’s “Over the Rainbow,” as voted by members of the RIAA. In 2002, the original 1942 version was one of 50 historically significant recordings chosen that year by the Library of Congress to be added to the National Recording Registry. The recording was broadcast on the radio on April 30, 1975, as a secret, pre-arranged signal precipitating the U.S. evacuation of Saigon (see Fall of Saigon).
Irving Berlin’s opening bars are often dropped in recordings, but are included on A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector, sung by Darlene Love, and on Barbra Streisand’s A Christmas Album.
“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.”
No one will ever sing “White Christmas” quite the way Bing Crosby did, although many artists have recorded their renditions. There are two credible recordings worth the listen: a version sung by Country singer Tammy Wynette, and an instrumental version by Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops, with a violin solo that just tugs at the old-fashioned heart strings.
Anyone living below the 40th parallel doesn’t stand much of a chance of getting a White Christmas. The National Weather Service decree states that there can’t just be snow on the ground on Dec. 25th – it must actually be snowing. They have map of the United State, showing the chances for a White Christmas. If you’re in Palm Springs, or Palm Beach, the only way you’re going to see snow is if you shake your snowglobe.
The same for the southern regions of Texas and Louisiana. New York City and that region may see some snow showers. Oddly enough, Washington, D.C. is always more likely to get snow that New York or even Boston. Must be all those subway grates in New York.
The song, of course, is so old-fashioned that unless they live in the countryside, children aren’t likely to know what a sleigh bell is, except in stories. The only place they’re likely to hear one now is in a musical concert or on a Christmas CD.
Still, “White Christmas” gives us back that old-fashioned feeling for a few minutes at least, when there are no cars, subways, trucks, or jets; just the stillness of a winter countryside setting, and the approach of a horse drawing a sleigh, its occupants bundled up in furs and cloaks, its jingling muted by the newly-fallen snow.
Those were the days. I guess.