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"White Christmas"
Bing Crosby
Bing Crosby

Christmas records date back more than a hundred years, but, for most people, Bing Crosby singing "White Christmas" remains the quintessential Christmas song.

For over half a century, "White Christmas" was the best-selling record ever released - although people pretty much stopped counting after the Crosby version alone broke the 30 million mark! But for such an all-time classic, the song's origins were decidedly unremarkable.

The song's composer, Irving Berlin, had been carrying the idea of a festive song around with him for a good few years, but he finally found space for it in a 1942 film called Holiday Inn. Little more than a vehicle for Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire, the film was - even by Hollywood standards - a mite improbable but it did feature that song for the first time:

Irving Berlin
"White Christmas was written just for a movie"

"Not only is it the best song I ever wrote," Berlin boasted, "it's the best song anybody ever wrote!" However, the studio had other ideas they thought the ballad "Be Careful, It’s My Heart" would be the film's hit. Luckily, Crosby agreed with the composer taking the pipe from his mouth after the first read-through, Bing assured Berlin: "You don’t have to worry about this one, Irving."

The original version of the song had a spoken verse, reflecting on how sunny it was in Beverly Hills, but Berlin soon decided to drop that - and thus guaranteed the song’s global appeal. In fact, it was World War II GIs, serving far, far away and yearning for home during that most reflective time of year, who first propelled "White Christmas" into legend as Bing recalls:

Bing Crosby
"when I'd sing it they'd all cry"

Come glory in the art of the tunesmith. Two smooth chromatic slides in the first line ("of a" and "Christmas") provide instant topline recognition. Heart-tugging suspensions on the second syllables of "glisten" (sixth note over root seventh chord) and "listen" (fifth note over fourth minor) lead us to the cherry on the cake, the star atop the tree - instead of rhyming "merry", the truncated melody unexpectedly reaches up to the tonic octave for "bright". Perfect.
Dominic King

There is a rare chance to hear the "Beverly Hills" verse on Darlene Love's sincerely sexy take, which opens the best-ever Christmas LP, A Christmas Gift For You, From Phil Spector. But Irving Berlin himself hated rock & roll, and when it was announced in 1957 that Elvis Presley’s Christmas Album would feature the King taking on "White Christmas", Berlin had his staff ring round the radio stations and beg them not to play Presley's version!

In the end though, "White Christmas" survived Elvis. And U2 and Bob Marley. And Frank Sinatra, Otis Redding, the Three Tenors...

Sixty years on, the song's sleighbells in the snow and glistening treetops are still our abiding images of Christmas. It may be corny and familiar, ironic or post-ironic, but for most of us "White Christmas" - with its infectious melody and Bing's warm lilting vocal - simply is Christmas.

Patrick Humphries
© BBCi

... it became a peace song during the war.

Irving Berlin

 Listen to Irving Berlin

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