Some songs are hits — No. 1 for a couple of weeks. Some songs are standards — they endure decade after decade. And a few very rare songs reach way beyond either category, to embed themselves so deeply in the collective consciousness they become part of the soundtrack of society. They start off the same as all the other numbers, written for a show or a movie, a singer or an event, but they float free of the writer, they outlast the singer, transcend the movie, change the event. And Irving Berlin’s ‘White Christmas’ is perhaps the song that transformed American Christmas.
There are a couple of what we now think of as seasonal standards that predate Irving Berlin’s entry into the field, but neither became a pillar of the Xmas repertoire, because until ‘White Christmas’ came along there was no such thing. (‘Jingle Bells’ was written for Thanksgiving.) In the decade after Bing Crosby introduced the number in Holiday Inn (1942), Berlin’s colleagues responded with ‘Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow’, ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’, ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’, ‘Frosty the Snowman’ — all the ‘Yule Day gravy’ (as Variety put it) that in a slightly different order makes up every Christmas album from Andy Williams to ’N Sync. In a fragmented culture, these are now the last songs we all sing, whether our tastes incline to rap or country or the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. They represent the zenith of a universal popular culture we’re unlikely to see again.
When something’s that big, you take it for granted. If you’ve heard ‘White Christmas’ in a shopping mall or elevator or while stuck in touch-tone hell trying to make a telephone booking, you don’t usually think, ‘Gee, “White Christmas” again. That must be the 50th version this month.’ But, if you did, you’d want to know how it got that way. What particular combination of circumstances blessed ‘White Christmas’ out of all the other songs written about that month? Berlin had, many years earlier, attempted to compose a Tin Pan Alley Christmas song — in 1912, the year after his first big hit with ‘Alexander’s Ragtime Band’, he’d published ‘Christmas Time Seems Years and Years Away’, which, from his point of view, it was. Before radio, before a real record industry, the sheet-music business couldn’t see the point of working a song that would be dead on 26 December. The notion that it might be a seasonal insurance policy, returning year after year for decade after decade, never occurred to them.
But it occurred to Irving Berlin. He seems to have had the idea for ‘White Christmas’ a couple of years before Crosby introduced it, and then started plotting what to do with it. ‘You don’t have to worry about this one thing, Irving,’ Bing told him. They both thought the movie and the record would do all right. The movie did all right, the record was the world’s biggest-selling single for 55 years, until Dianasian ululating propelled ‘Candle in the Wind ’97’ into the record books. There are two elements that helped ‘White Christmas’ on its way, one of which Berlin couldn’t have foreseen: Pearl Harbor. Had America entered the war in Europe in 1939, ‘White Christmas’ might have been just a hit record from a so-so movie. Instead, 1942 was the American serviceman’s first Christmas away, in the Pacific, under glorious sunny skies that only made home seem even more distant. In Operation Shylock, Philip Roth wrote:
God gave Moses the Ten Commandments and then He gave Irving Berlin ‘Easter Parade’ and ‘White Christmas’. The two holidays that celebrate the divinity of Christ — the divinity that’s the very heart of the Jewish rejection of Christmas — and what does Irving Berlin brilliantly do? He de-Christs them both! Easter turns into a fashion show and Christmas into a holiday about snow… He turns their religion into schlock. But nicely!
But Roth is missing the point. In the end, ‘White Christmas’ isn’t a song about snow. They had white Christmases in Tyumen, Siberia, where Berlin was born, but a white Russian Christmas wouldn’t be the same: it’s not about the weather, it’s about home. In 1942, those GIs out in the Pacific understood that. Twelve years later, building a new movie named for the song, Berlin acknowledged the men who made it special, in the best staging in the picture: Bing singing in the rubble, accompanied only by Danny Kaye’s musical box, as the boys rest their chins on their rifle butts and think of home. Berlin couldn’t have predicted Pearl Harbor, but there’s no surprise that, once it had happened, his were the sentiments the country turned to.
Christmas was not kind to Irving Berlin. At five o’clock on the morning of Christmas Day 1928, his three-week-old son, Irving Junior, was found dead in his bassinet. ‘I’m sure,’ his daughter Mary Ellin told me a few years back, ‘it was what we would now call “crib death”.’
Does that cast ‘White Christmas’ in a different light? The plangent melancholy the GIs heard in the tune, the unsettling chromatic phrase, the eerie harmonic darkening under the words ‘where children listen’; it’s not too fanciful to suggest the singer’s dreaming of children no longer around to listen. When the girls grew up and left home, Irving Berlin, symbol of American Christmas, gave up celebrating it. ‘We both hated Christmas,’ Mrs Berlin said later. ‘We only did it for you children.’
To take a baby on Christmas morning mocks the very meaning of the day. And to take Irving Berlin’s seems an even crueller jest — to reward his uncanny ability to articulate the sentiments of his country by depriving him of the possibility of sharing them.
Berlin was a professional Tin Pan Alley-man, but his story, his Christmas is there in the music. ‘White Christmas’ isn’t about the thousands of different CDs it’s on but a more primal connection with its audience. Fourteen years after his death, Berlin embodies all the possibilities of America: his family arrived at Ellis Island as poor and foreign and disadvantaged as you can be, and yet he wove himself into the very fabric of the nation. His life and his art are part of the definition of America. Whatever his doubts about God, Berlin kept faith with his adopted land — and that faith is what millions heard 60 years ago in ‘White Christmas’.
This is an edited version of a piece that appeared in The Spectator of 14/21 December 2002.