It is almost impossible to imagine Christmas without thinking of all the songs that go with the day. There are enough holiday tunes to fill the season, and many are so beloved that they command a near-monopoly on the radio.
Despite the plethora of Yuletide melodies, there was one fellow who thought there could be one more.
The idea of writing a new song in a genre that was so heavily packed with memorable songs was ambitious, at best. It was downright foolhardy for this songwriter. Nothing about him or the song seemed to fit the traditional Christmas mold.
For one thing, he didn’t even celebrate Christmas. He was Jewish. For that reason, he did not intend to inject any religious themes into his song. That alone should have stopped him from proceeding further. There wasn’t a single secular Christmas song of any significance being played on any radio station.
He also had a few things going against him in terms of getting anyone to pay attention to anything he wrote. Not to be unkind, but the fact is that he had a pretty bad singing voice. It was high-pitched and not-at-all compelling. He could play the piano, but only in one key. In fact, he had to use a special piano with a lever that shifted the piano keys to the side, thus compensating for his inability to make his hands do the work.
Another reason the song should have been doomed from the start was the way it started. Although people celebrate Christmas in all climates, the day is indelibly linked to winter, cold weather, and snow. Despite that, his dubious Christmas song opened with these lyrics:
The sun is shining, the grass is green.
The orange and palm trees sway.
There’s never been such a day
In Beverly Hills, LA,
But it’s December the 24th,
And I’m longing to be up north.
If all of these reasons to give up on the idea weren’t enough, there was one more that probably should have been mentioned from the beginning. The overall feeling of the song was just — wrong. Christmas is a time of happiness, joy, and celebration. Even the most reverent of Christmas hymns are imbued with an underlying expression of celebration about the Savior’s birth. This new song was anything but joyful; it was slow, melancholy, and filled with regret and disappointment.
Of course, you can’t blame the songwriter for associating Christmas with melancholy. About ten years earlier, his 3-week-old son died on December 25. The primary annual Christmas Day tradition for the songwriter and his wife was to visit their son’s grave. For anyone who has lost a loved one close to the holidays, it is natural to approach the season with feelings of ambivalence. Even so, who wants to have those feelings dumped upon them at Christmastime, potentially ruining the holiday spirit for everyone?
As you can see, there is no reason why this songwriter should have expected his new song to be accepted by anyone. It’s almost laughable that he told anyone about it. It is even more surprising that anyone would give it a second look.
In all likelihood, no one would have considered the new song if the songwriter hadn’t already made a bit of a name for himself. He wasn’t a fresh, young face, trying to break into the industry. He had proven that he could write songs of which the public approved. Perhaps for that reason alone, the unlikely holiday song made it beyond its writer’s imagination and was offered for public consideration.
The Christmas song that defied all the rules about what Christmas songs should be had its public debut on Christmas Day, 1941. With the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor having occurred just three weeks earlier, the public was, perhaps, a bit more forgiving about the sadness that was woven through its lyrics and melody. Certainly, there was no great outcry of protest. As for the artist who sang it, despite his initial reluctance to be associated with a secular Christmas song, he shrugged and said, “I don’t think we have any problems with that one.”
With that less-than-enthusiastic endorsement, the song was included in a movie to be released in August 1942. The film was filled with songs about all the holidays on the calendar. Any anxiety the producers might have had about the unlikely Christmas song was overcome by their hopes for the success of the other musical numbers. One song in particular, a Valentine’s Day love song was a sure bet to be the most popular song in the movie, assuring the film’s success at the box office.
Of course, the all-star cast of the movie was a big draw, as well. Even if the Christmas song tanked, everything else about the film had all the ingredients for a hit.
That is the background for the film debut of this decidedly-unorthodox Christmas song.
The movie, by the way, was a hit. It finished #8 in the box office for the entire year. The Valentine’s Day song, “Be Careful, It’s My Heart,” did quite well, too. It sold a lot of copies at that time and became a hit again in 1961 when it was re-recorded by Frank Sinatra.
It was that Christmas song, though, that surprised everyone. It not only surpassed “Be Careful, It’s My Heart” in popularity and sales but it outsold all the other songs. We mean ALL of the other songs. It made it to the top of the billboard for Christmas songs, and it didn’t stop there. It topped the charts for all songs in all genres in every language in the world.
The unchristmasy-Christmas song that had absolutely nothing going for it and should have died on the vine was given life by Bing Crosby on that fateful Christmas Day radio show in 1941. When he sang it again in the 1942 movie Holiday Inn, the odd opening lyrics about green grass and Beverly Hills were gone, but the aching melancholy remained and resonated with millions.
Irving Berlin, the Jewish songwriter for whom Christmas evoked painful memories of loss wrote a song that not only found its way into the already-packed Christmas genre, it made it to the top — not only for Christmas songs but for all songs. Since its release, “White Christmas” has been sung by many artists, but it is Bing Crosby’s version that has become the world’s best-selling single, in terms of physical media. Estimated global sales exceed 50 million. Another 50 million can be added to that number when factoring in the recordings by other artists, earning about $65 million.
Everything about the song and the songwriter was unconventional, contradictory, and counter-intuitive. Despite all of those reasons why the song should have been a big nothing, it ended up blessing the entire world. Perhaps it represents the true meaning of Christmas, after all.