Some songs are hits — Number One 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. There were a couple of what we now think of as seasonal standards that predated Irving Berlin’s entry into the field, yet neither became a pillar of the Xmas pop repertoire, because until ‘White Christmas’ came along there was no such thing.
But, 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 one order or another 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 that month? Berlin, wrote Jody Rosen in his book about the anthem, ‘had tried to kick-start the Tin Pan Alley Christmas song some years before.’