Year after year, artists and songwriters have been trying to go one better than Bing Crosby. His recording of “White Christmas” is ubiquitous and along the way has become the biggest-selling single of all time, racking up sales of 50 million in the process.
Among the artists that have tried to emulate Bing’s success are Carpenters and their beautiful “Merry Christmas Darling,” The Beach Boys’ rousing, harmony-filled “Little Saint Nick,” Elton John’s “Step Into Christmas” and Ella Fitzgerald’s “Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow,” which shared the sentiment of “White Christmas.” None have come close, but that hardly matters. Because we don’t listen to these songs for the other 11 months of the year there is always something fresh and enticing about Christmas music. Every year, the first time your hear Bing’s mellifluous tones telling us “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas”, we know that all is good in the world.
The story behind “White Christmas” is fascinating. Crosby’s original version, recorded in May 1942 for Decca – most Christmas songs over the years have been made during the summer months – is not the one we usually hear today. Crosby made an almost identical version in 1947 because the original master tape had worn out, as the single had been constantly re-pressed to meet with demand.
The song’s writer, Izzy Baline, the former singing waiter from New York’s Chinatown, was born Israel Berlin in Belarus; he later became Irving Berlin, one of America’s greatest ever songwriters. Berlin, who also wrote “God Bless America,” had a musical secretary, because he could not read or write music – he could only bash out a melody on the black keys of a piano. When writing a song, Berlin generally hummed the tune and dictated the words. A number of years after writing “White Christmas,” Berlin was asked how a member of the Jewish faith could write such a song. “I wrote it as an American,” he replied. Berlin was just five year old when his parents and eight siblings moved to America in 1893.
Considering that Bing’s version of “White Christmas” (which, incidentally, took only 18 minutes to record) is definitive, it is amazing just how many people have had a go at covering it. They range from Bob Marley to Stiff Little Fingers, Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan, U2, Elvis Presley, and Gwen Stefani. Irving Berlin even fought a legal campaign to get Elvis Presley’s version banned. You can understand his point; on the day Berlin walked into his office on Broadway with the song in his head, he said: “Not only is it the best song I ever wrote, it’s the best song anybody ever wrote.”
“White Christmas” received its first public broadcast on Christmas Eve 1941, during Bing Crosby’s radio show. This was just a few weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor, which is possibly why it became such an important song to American servicemen overseas. It spoke to them – and those they left behind – of safer, saner times.
The song that has come closest to rivaling “White Christmas” is another well-known classic which begins, “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire” – Mel Tormé’s “The Christmas Song.” As well as being a songwriter, Mel was a fantastic singer who recorded some great albums for Verve Records, but his version was not the original hit. Against the wishes of his record company, Nat “King” Cole recorded his version of “The Christmas Song” in 1946, the first of four occasions he made a recording of it. It’s another song that has been covered by well over 100 artists, including Diana Ross, Paul McCartney, Stevie Wonder, and Carpenters.
Such is “White Christmas”’ status, many think it was the first festive record, but this is not the case. To begin with, there were many recordings of Christmas carols, mostly done by choirs. Another perennial, “Jingle Bells,” dates from the 19th Century, while “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” is one of the earliest Christmas recordings of the modern era . It first aired on singer Eddie Cantor’s American radio show in 1934, and is another of those songs that has become a standard. Among those that have recorded it in the last 80 years are The Supremes, Diana Krall, Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald.
Many artists have devoted themselves to whole albums of seasonal music; among the best are Carpenters’ Christmas Portrait, Ella Fitzgerald’s Ella Wishes You A Swinging Christmas, Diana Krall’s Christmas Songs, Mary J Blige’s A Mary Christmas and Gwen Stefani’s You Make It Feel Like Christmas. In 1987, the first of a very special series of Christmas charity albums was released. Called A Very Special Christmas, it has become one of the best-selling seasonal collections in history.
There’s no doubting it, though. Head and shoulders above everyone is Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas.”
Looking for more? Discover the best Christmas songs of all time.