The most popular Christmas carol in America stands apart from the others in a number of ways.
It’s not upbeat, there are no fanciful characters and it isn’t religious. Instead, it’s melancholy and wistful – full of longing for bygone days.
Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” was first heard on a radio show sponsored by the Kraft Company on Christmas Day, 1941. Bing Crosby and Kraft Music Hall mainly appealed to young people – the average listener age was 21 – so it’s possible that the younger generation embraced “White Christmas” first.
But the longing and coziness of the song had a deeper meaning that day. Families tuning in to that broadcast were thinking about the tragic event that happened just 18 days before: the Pearl Harbor attack.
By the following winter, young American troops found themselves overseas during the holidays. Armed Forces radio played “White Christmas” over and over to remind them of home.
Bing Crosby recorded the song for distribution in 1942. When Crosby traveled overseas to perform for the troops, the carol was always the most requested, despite Crosby’s reservations about performing it.
“I hesitated about doing it because invariably it caused such a nostalgic yearning among the men, that it made them sad,” Crosby said in an interview. “Heaven knows, I didn’t come that far to make them sad. For this reason, several times I tried to cut it out of the show, but these guys just hollered for it.”
By the end of the war, “White Christmas” was the bestselling song of all time and held that distinction for 56 years until Elton John’s remake of “Candle in the Wind” when Princess Diana died in 1997.
After 72 years, it’s still the bestselling Christmas song of all time, which is interesting given that fact that composer Berlin didn’t even celebrate Christmas: He was a Jewish man who emigrated from Russia as a child.
Christmas was a sad day for him. While many American families opened gifts around the Christmas tree, Berlin had his own a tradition. Every year he visited the grave of his son who died on Christmas Day, 1928, at only three weeks old.
Unless you were alive in the 1940s, you haven't heard the recording of “White Christmas” that made it famous.
The radio premiere of the song on Kraft Music Hall was lost or taped over. Crosby's estate does have an original recording which was lent to CBS news for their 2011 Christmas broadcast.
Crosby’s original 1942 master recording – the version heard by troops overseas – wore out from overuse. That’s why, for some years the 1947 remake – intended to sound as close as possible to the 1942 version —- was widely distributed.
But a new 1942 remaster was issued in 1999 and is commonly available today.
For composer Berlin — who also wrote “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” and “God Bless America” — “White Christmas” was an unexpected hit. It was a simple song: just 54 words and 67 notes. It was written for a musical revue about the holidays that eventually became the movie “Holiday Inn.”
Berlin thought a different song from that film would become popular.
“I had a song in there called 'Be Careful It’s My Heart' for Valentine’s Day,” he said. “That’s the song I picked. And it was a fair success.”
But “White Christmas” was the song that won him an Academy Award.
This segment originally aired Dec. 16, 2013.
Note 12/12/2017: The web version of this story has been updated with information about the original recordings of the song.