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Irving Berlin's <i>White Christmas</i> Celebrates 60th Anniversary - 2002-12-14

A beloved American holiday song celebrates its 60th anniversary this year. Irving Berlin's White Christmas made its debut in a 1942 movie called Holiday Inn. It's been part of the Christmas season ever since, heard everywhere today from shopping malls to hotel elevators to holiday television specials. Now it's inspired a book by Jody Rosen, called White Christmas: The Story of an American Song.

Jody Rosen wasn't born yet when Bing Crosby sang the first hit version of White Christmas in 1942. The author grew up in the 1970s and 80s, listening to rock and roll, rap, and other music of his generation. But thanks to his grandmother's influence, he also loved the music of the 1930s and 40s. And after writing numerous articles on popular music, he decided White Christmas deserved a book of its own. "It was the biggest song of the era in commercial terms, arguably one of the creative peaks of the period as well," he explained. "Bing Crosby's version alone has sold at least 31 million copies. But there have been quite literally hundreds of millions of copies of this song sold in various versions. There have been recordings in Swahili, in Dutch, in Hungarian. In Spanish speaking countries everyone knows Blanca Navidad. In France everyone sings Blanc Noel. So it's really an American song that's become a universal song, the preeminent Christmas song of the 20th century."

White Christmas has also helped shaped American notions about what the ideal Christmas should be like. "The cottage tucked on a snowy hillside and the associations of the holiday with family and home and hearth and all those sentimental images of the Victorian Christmas were already in the culture when Irving Berlin wrote the song. But this really was the first American popular song that discussed Christmas," he said.

Jody Rosen says he was also intrigued by the fact that a song about how Americans celebrate a Christian holiday was written by a Russian Jewish immigrant. As the author explains in White Christmas, Irving Berlin probably wrote the song partly for practical reasons; he believed there was a market for new Christmas music. "He was interested in hits above all, and not just because he wanted to make a lot of money, but he saw himself as a public songwriter, fulfilling a very important public role. On the other hand, it speaks to his lifelong effort to assimilate. He was born in a a small Jewish village in the Russian pale, emigrated at five- years-old in 1893, and from the moment he came to America wanted to be a Yankee Doodle American. After all, this was the guy who wound up writing God Bless America,which is an alternative national anthem."

Jody Rosen traces the inspiration for White Christmas back to 1938. Irving Berlin had just returned to New York City after spending some five years in Hollywood working on movie musicals. He'd been amused to see Californians celebrating America's traditional winter holiday in such a warm climate. So he wrote what were supposed to be the opening lines to what would become White Christmas.

But those first lines, sung here by Mel Torme in a 1992 recording of White Christmas, were dropped from the version Bing Crosby sang 50 years earlier. Jody Rosen says what began for Irving Berlin as a parody song turned into something else. "I think he realized the sentimentality of the song summed up some of the emotions we bring to the Christmas holiday," said Jody Rosen. "So when he came into his office on January 8, 1940, a Monday morning, he told his musical secretary, '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.' And that song was White Christmas."

Irving Berlin's own feelings about the holiday may have shadowed the song. Despite Berlin's Jewish heritage, says Jody Rosen, the composer enjoyed lavish Christmas celebrations, until tragedy struck his family. "On Christmas Day 1928, Irving Berlin jr., Irving Berlin's only son, who was three-weeks-old, died of what we might call today SIDS, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome," he explained. "And afterwards the holiday made him sad, because every Christmas was the anniversary of his son's death. And White Christmas has this wistful, melancholy quality, which really comes across in Crosby's very soft, crooning performance of the song."

Bing Crosby was already known for singing other Christmas songs, and Jody Rosen says Irving Berlin knew from the start he wanted Crosby to sing White Christmas: "One of his nicknames was 'Santa Cros.' So when Berlin wrote his Christmas song he thought, 'Hey, I've got to have Crosby doing this, and he signed him up to do the movie Holiday Inn, in which the song first appeared and wouldn't agree to do that movie with Paramount Pictures unless Crosby was on board."

When Holiday Inn made its debut, the first fans of White Christmas were U.S. soldiers, fighting World War II far from home. "Instead of wistful evocation of a Christmas on the home front really resonated with soldiers overseas who were of course in such a treacherous position, and also were - many of them - in the tropics in the Pacific where they were facing a decidedly unWhite Christmas that year," said Mr. Rosen. "So the soldiers spurred the craze for the song at home. And by October it was already a huge hit, and Berlin was worried it would peter out before Christmas rolled around. But he didn't have anything to worry about."

The success of White Christmas and Holiday Inn paved the way for other seasonal hits, songs like I'll Be Home for Christmas, and movies like It's a Wonderful Life. White Christmas itself would be recorded in more than 500 different versions, including a 1957 recording by rock and roll legend Elvis Presley. "Irving Berlin, who loathed rock and roll, felt his song was being desecrated by this horrible rock and roll cretin with his swiveling hips and greasy hair, and so he tried to organize a radio station ban on Presley's singing White Christmas. He failed, and this signaled an end to Berlin's six-decade-long dominance of American music," he said.

But if the definition of American popular music changed over the years, Irving Berlin's songs lived on. And Jody Rosen says the composer never stopped believing he'd created a masterpiece in White Christmas, together with Bing Crosby. "In later years, Berlin and Crosby used to exchange annual letters over the Christmas season, and invariably these letters concerned White Christmas, said Jody Rosen. "Berlin would say I want to thank you for singing that song so well, and Crosby would thank Berlin for writing it and say, 'My career would never have gotten to this place without that song.' Berlin was very proprietary about his music, but he referred to White Christmas as 'our song.'"