“White Christmas” Was The Song America Needed To Fight Fascism

On Christmas Day 1941, crooner Bing Crosby came to the microphone to present his new song. He was performing live on his hugely popular national radio show on NBC, “Kraft Music Hall”.

As the orchestra began to play, Crosby’s calming baritone hovered over the air: “I dream of a white Christmas, like those I have known…”

He finished the melancholy song of the past vacation and the audience politely applauded. It was his first time singing “White Christmas” – what would become Irving Berlin’s seasonal super classic – but hardly anyone noticed it at the time.

The United States, still numbed by the devastating attack on Pearl Harbor just over two weeks earlier, was bracing for a deadly war and had little time for a sentimental song about “sleigh bells in the snow” and the “happy and bright” days. .

“America has been massively distracted,” said James Kaplan, author of “Irving Berlin: New York Genius,” published in 2019. “It was only 17 days after the worst attack ever on the country. There were more pressing concerns at the time.

Of course, “White Christmas” would become the best-selling single of all time. According to Guinness World Records, it has sold some 50 million copies worldwide, with a further 50 million album sales.

So how did “White Christmas” become the mega-bit that it is today?

Oddly enough, the very circumstances that inhibited its initial success ultimately led to its explosion. As the young men set out to face fascism and tyranny in distant battlefields, the song’s touching message resurfaces as a symbol of longing for a life that once was.

“White Christmas” was created by one of America’s greatest songwriters. Born Israel Beilin in Western Siberia in 1888, Irving Berlin grew up on the wicked streets of the Lower East Side of New York. As a child, this son of an Orthodox rabbi learned about Christmas from an equally poor Irish Catholic family, the O’Haras. Young Izzy, as his childhood companions called him, was welcomed into their home, where they introduced him to what could best be described as a Charlie Brown tree. It left a lasting impression.

“It was the first time I saw a Christmas tree,” Berlin told the Washington Post in 1954. “The O’Hara were very poor and later, as I got used to their annual tree, I got used to it. realized they had to buy one with broken and small branches, but to me that first tree seemed to dominate the sky.

Later, after incredible success as the author of the American songbook, Berlin turned its attention to this time to compose “White Christmas”. According to Kaplan, he probably tinkered with the idea for years before inspiration hit in early January 1940, when he told his secretary, “I want you to take a song I wrote this weekend. . Not only is it the best song I’ve ever written, it’s the best song no one has ever written. “

Berlin later stated that he intended to use “White Christmas” in a revue he planned to produce, but then decided to reserve it for the film “Holiday Inn”, which starred Crosby and Fred Astaire. This film, about a few country hostel owners who put on musicals for each holiday, spawned several Berlin hits, including “Easter Parade”, “Happy Holiday” and “Be Careful, It’s My Heart”.

Production of “Holiday Inn” was underway in 1941 when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Backed by the Music Maids, Crosby featured “White Christmas” on his national radio show on Christmas Day, but it barely made a dent in public awareness at the time.

In July 1942, the crooner recorded the song with an orchestra and its characteristic whistling accompaniment. The movie came out the next month, and all of a sudden the world took notice. “White Christmas” reached number one on the charts in October 1942 and stayed there for 11 weeks.

For the many young men who went to war, the song struck home. The early days of WWII were not good for the United States. Starting with Pearl Harbor, the country suffered a series of defeats in the first few months of fighting. Morale was low and people needed something to hold onto. “White Christmas” and “Holiday Inn” have become a lifeline for many Americans – especially the overseas servicemen who heard it play on the Armed Services radio network.

Kaplan compared the power of song and film to another major media event that took the world by storm: The Beatles’ appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show in February 1964 – less than three months after President John was assassinated F. Kennedy.

“The country was plunged into darkness after JFK’s death, followed by this sunburn on television,” he said. “There was something about this movie and this song that had a very similar effect on America in 1942.”

Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Carl Sandburg understood what was going on. On the first anniversary of Pearl Harbor in 1942, he wrote about “White Christmas” in the Chicago Times:

“Far down under, this latest Irving Berlin hit catches us where we like peace. The Nazi theory and doctrine that the man in his blood is naturally a warrior, so much so that he should call war a blessing, we don’t like it. … Hopes and prayers are that we will see the start of a hundred years of White Christmases – without bloodstains of unnecessary agony and death on the snow.

When the Armed Forces Radio Network began broadcasting “White Christmas” in 1942, the military couldn’t get enough. The army’s broadcast service was inundated with requests to play the song. The image of snow “shining in the treetops” comforted these nostalgic young men as they fought and died in the deserts of North Africa and the jungles of the South Pacific.

In November 1942, Time Magazine reported that “White Christmas” had sold 600,000 records in just 10 weeks. It would also be played overseas on tens of thousands of V-discs – the little metal “victory” discs listened to by troops as they dodged shells and bullets in their shelters on the front lines.

“White Christmas” has become an essential part of Crosby’s repertoire. He sang it often, including when entertaining troops on USO broadcasts in Europe and the Pacific. Later in the war, however, the crooner tried to eliminate him from the roster – not because he didn’t like him, but because he found it sad that the military heard him so far away. from their house.

Howard Crosby, the singer’s nephew, spoke with his uncle about the song’s impact, especially with the troops. In 2016, he told The Spokesman-Review:

“In December 1944 he was on a USO show with Bob Hope and the Andrews Sisters in northern France. … He had to stand there and sing ‘White Christmas’ with 100,000 GIs in tears without breaking down. Of course, many of these boys were killed in the Battle of the Bulge a few days later.

Crosby’s recording of “White Christmas” in 1942 has stood the test of time. Not only did it become a hit again in 1954 with the film of the same name – starring The Crooner alongside Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen – it still survives today as a staple of holiday playlists for radio stations, cable music channels and satellite services.

According to Kaplan, the “White Christmas” has a power that allows it to be enjoyed by future generations and even among people of different faiths. The lyrics are powerful enough to convey strong feelings of home and family, yet simple enough that everyone – Christians, Jews, atheists and others – can believe in this vision of life and aspiration.

“The ‘White Christmas’ is universally appealing,” Kaplan said. “It’s a great and timeless song. There is something so enigmatic and hidden about it that makes it one of the great works of folk art. In the end, ‘White Christmas’ is a dream. This is not the reality on which he poses. He dreams of a white Christmas. The images are very vivid and dreamlike.

And that was exactly what the United States needed in the depths of the war in 1942.

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