In January, 1940, Irving Berlin raced into his office and said to his secretary: “Grab your pen and take down this song. I just wrote the best song I’ve ever written — hell, I just wrote the best song that anybody’s ever written.” The song was, of course, White Christmas. Berlin later dropped the original verse that poked fun at a well-off Californian who, amid orange and palm trees, longs for a traditional Christmas “up north”:
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 —
But he kept the now-famous choruses that begin:
I’m dreaming of a white Christmas
Just like the ones I used to know.
White Christmas is a pleasant holiday song that reminisces about an old-fashioned Christmas setting and has become the second most popular Christmas song, surpassed only by Silent Night. In the seventy plus years since the song was written, White Christmas comes the closest that any secular writing can come to being considered a carol.
The song has very little to do with the meaning of the religious holy day, for that religious Christmas is neither white fluffy snow, nor nostalgic sleigh bells, nor even beautiful Christmas cards.
It has often been noted that the mix of the melancholy – “just like the ones I used to know” – with the comforting images of home – “where the treetops glisten” – resonated especially strongly with listeners during World War Two.
The song begins by dreaming of snow. “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas, just like the ones I used to know . . .” Snow is every child’s dream. And snow, as we know, is certainly one thing that we associate with Christmas. After all, how does Santa Claus arrive in his sleigh without snow? That it was probably not a snowy Christmas that first Christmas millennia ago is not really relevant to us. Christmas is celebrated in December; snow often comes in December, at least in the Northern Hemisphere; hence the association of snow and Christmas.
After lovingly looking at snow on glistening tree tops, the song longingly looks at the past. The song dreams of sleigh bells. “. . . To hear sleigh bells in the snow.” During World War Two, more than anything else, White Christmas was one of the strongest links our armed forces had with home, whether they were in the mud of a southern training camp, or in the dust of Northern Africa, or in the rain of Italy, or in the tropical forests of the South Pacific, or on a storm-tossed destroyer in the North Atlantic, or in the bitter cold of Bastogne. Now, White Christmas did not necessarily draw those homesick men and women to a home as it really was, but rather to a romantic spell of security and peace, of childhood bliss, of bright promises, and of merry hearts. I have the feeling though that of those whose eyes became misty as they heard or sang the words of the song, few had ever heard a sleigh bell! Yet, the song still resonated with those who were far away from home and hearth.
Finally, White Christmas dreams of Christmas cards. “. . . With every Christmas card I write.” Now, I know how easy it is to be cynical about Christmas cards. Perhaps you remember that classic cartoon in Punch some years ago. A woman, addressing her cards, says to her significant other: “We sent them one last year, and they didn’t send us one, so they probably won’t send us one this year because they’ll think we won’t send them one because they didn’t send us one last year, don’t you think – or shall we? Well, we may survey the mountain of cards to be addressed and groan, but the massive stack is not all that bad and sending cards does involve thinking of friends, recapturing past moments, and reaching out to others.
The first public performance of White Christmas was by Bing Crosby on his NBC radio show The Kraft Music Hall on Christmas Day, 1941.He subsequently recorded the song with the John Scott Trotter Orchestra and the Ken Darby Singers for Decca Records in 1942, and it was released as part of an album of six songs from the film Holiday Inn. In that film, Bing Crosby sings White Christmas as a duet with actress Marjorie Reynolds, though her voice was dubbed by Martha Mears. The unique feature of the “Holiday Inn” in the film was that the inn of the title was a night club and a restaurant that opened only on holidays, and was closed the rest of the year.
The song is noted for Crosby’s whistling during the second chorus. The version most often heard today is not the original 1942 Crosby recording, as the master had become damaged due to frequent use. Crosby re-recorded the track in 1947, accompanied again by the Trotter Orchestra and the Darby Singers, with every effort made to reproduce the original recording session. There are subtle differences in the orchestration, most notably the addition of a celesta and flutes to brighten up the introduction. The recording became a chart perennial, reappearing annually on the pop chart twenty separate times before Billboard magazine created a distinct Christmas chart for seasonal releases. I have included both versions below.
Crosby’s White Christmas has been credited with selling fifty million copies, the most by any release and therefore it is the biggest-selling single worldwide of all time and has never been out-of-print since 1949.
White Christmas has the distinction of being the most-recorded Christmas song of all time and there have been more than five hundred recorded versions of the song, in several different languages. No, I am not going to list them all (you can now breathe a sigh of relief), but in the spirit of my blog I will present the significant recordings made during the 1940s and 1950s. Chronologically, those versions are:
1942: Bing Crosby (with backing vocals by the Ken Darby Singers and John Scott Trotter and his Orchestra) released his version of the song and it reached #1 on the Billboard charts. The Crosby version also charted #5 in 1944, #1 in 1945, #1 in 1947, #3 in 1948, #6 in 1949, #5 in 1950, #13 in 1950, #13 in 1952, and #13 in 1955. Since 1947, the version that charted was the 1947 version, not the 1942 version. Both are available for comparison below.
1942: Gordon Jenkins and his Orchestra (with Bob Carroll on lead vocal) released a version of the song that reached # 16 on Billboard magazine’s pop singles chart.
1942: Charlie Spivak and his Orchestra (with Garry Stevens on lead vocal) released a version of the song that reached # 18 on Billboard magazine’s pop singles chart.
1942: Freddy Martin and his Orchestra (with Clyde Rogers on lead vocal) released a version of the song that reached # 20 on Billboard magazine’s pop singles chart (this same version charted on the Billboard pop singles chart again in December 1945, reaching # 16).
1944: Frank Sinatra released a version of the song (with backing orchestration by Axel Stordahl) that reached # 7 on Billboard magazine’s pop singles chart (this same version charted on the Billboard pop singles chart two more times: in December 1945, reaching # 5, and in December 1946, # number 6).
1945: On December 23, Kay Thompson performed her version of the song on the CBS radio program Request Performance backed by the Kay Thompson Rhythm Singers and an orchestra conducted by Leith Stevens. A recording of this radio performance has survived and I present it below. This version did not chart on the Billboard charts.
1946: Jo Stafford (with backing vocals by the Lyn Murray Singers and backing orchestration by Paul Weston) released a version of the song that reached # 9 on Billboard magazine’s pop singles chart.
1947: Eddy Howard and his Orchestra released a version of the song that did not chart.
1947: Perry Como (with backing orchestration by Lloyd Shaffer) released a non-charting version of the song.
1948: R&B vocal group The Ravens released a version of the song that reached # 9 on Billboard’s Rhythm & Blues Records chart in January 1949.
1949: Country singer Ernest Tubb (with female backing vocals by The Troubadettes) released a version of the song that reached # 7 on Billboard’s Country & Western Records chart.
1952: Singer Eddie Fisher (with Hugo Winterhalter’s Orchestra and Chorus) recorded a version of the song that did not chart.
1952: Mantovani and His Orchestra released a version of the song that did not chart.
1954: The Drifters released a cover version of the song that showcased the talents of lead singer Clyde McPhatter and the bass of Bill Pinkney. Their recording of the song peaked at # 2 on Billboard’s Rhythm & Blues Records chart in December 1954 (it also returned to the same chart in the next two years).
1957: Elvis Presley recorded a non-charting version of the song for his first holiday album, Elvis’ Christmas Album.
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Bing Crosby, with backing vocals by the Ken Darby Singers, John Scott Trotter and his Orchestra 1942 White Christmas
Bing Crosby, with backing vocals by the Ken Darby Singers, John Scott Trotter and his Orchestra 1947 White Christmas
Gordon Jenkins and his Orchestra, vocals by Bob Carroll White Christmas
Charlie Spivak and his Orchestra, vocals by Garry Stevens White Christmas
Freddy Martin and his Orchestra, vocals by Clyde Rogers White Christmas
Frank Sinatra, Axel Stordahl and his Orchestra and Chorus White Christmas
Kay Thompson, backing vocals by the Kay Thompson Rhythm Singers, Leith Stevens and his Orchestra White Christmas (Previously Unreleased)
Jo Stafford, backing vocals by the Lyn Murray Singers, Paul Weston and his Orchestra White Christmas
Eddy Howard and his Orchestra White Christmas
Perry Como, backing vocals by a mixed chorus, Lloyd Shaffer Orchestra White Christmas
The Ravens White Christmas
Ernest Tubb White Christmas
Eddie Fisher, Hugo Winterhalter, his Orchestra and Chorus White Christmas
Mantovani and His Orchestra (instrumental) White Christmas
The Drifters, vocals by Bill Pinkney and Clyde McPhatter White Christmas
Elvis Presley, backing vocals by the Jordanaires White Christmas