With ‘White Christmas,’ Irving Berlin and Bing Crosby helped make Christmas a holiday that all Americans could celebrate (Ray Rast, 12/19/23, The Conversation)
Berlin’s inspiration for the song came in 1937, when he spent Christmas in Beverly Hills. He was near the film studios where he worked but far from his wife, Ellin – a devout Catholic – and the New York City home in Manhattan where they had always celebrated the holiday with their three daughters.
Being apart from Ellin that Christmas was particularly difficult: Their infant son had died on Dec. 26, 1928. Irving knew his wife would have to make the annual visit to their son’s grave by herself.
By 1940, Berlin had come up with his lyrics. In his Manhattan office, he sat at his piano and asked his arranger to take down the notes.
“Not only is it the best song I ever wrote,” he promised, “it’s the best song anybody ever wrote.”
Berlin had connected his lonesome Christmas to the broader turmoil of the time, including the outbreak of World War II and fraught debates about America’s role in the world.
This new song reflected his response: a dream of better times and places. It evoked a small town of yesteryear in which horse-drawn sleighs crossed freshly fallen snow. It also imagined a future in which dark days would be “merry and bright” once again.
This was a new kind of Christmas carol. It did not mention the birth of Jesus, angels or wise men – and it was a song that all Americans, including Jewish immigrants, could embrace.
Berlin soon took “White Christmas” back to Hollywood. He wanted it to appear in his newest musical, one that would tell the story of a retired singer whose hotel offered rooms and entertainment, but only on American holidays. He titled the film “Holiday Inn” and pitched it to Paramount Pictures, with Crosby as the lead.