Irving Berlin believed it was the best song he — or anyone else — had ever written. Maybe he’s right. It is, after all, the best-selling, most recorded song of all time. (The Bing Crosby original on its own was the world’s top selling recording for over 50 years.)
The tune debuted, along with a few other chestnuts, such as “Happy Holidays,” in the 1942 film Holiday Inn, about a country retreat opened by some Manhattan expatriates tired of the demands of the city’s night life. The eponymous resort only opens on major holidays, offering the opportunity for a whole slew of holiday songs to roll out. “White Christmas,” of course, outstripped them all. When the song first turns up in the film, Bing is teaching it to leading lady (and love interest) Marjorie Reynolds, whose singing voice is dubbed:
Lost in this version (which won an Academy Award for best original song) is Berlin’s original opener for the song, which locates the song not in the snowy Connecticut countryside but in sunny Beverly Hills. Apparently he hated spending Christmas in California:
The sun is shining
The grass is green
The orange and palm trees sway.
I’ve never seen such a day
In Beverly Hills LA.
But it’s December the 24th
And I am longing to be up North.
Berlin inaugurates the tradition of American Jews providing long-lasting expressions of Christmas cheer. (Here’s Babs’ version of the song, the most unselfconsciously Jewish and California-inflected one I know.) If this seems a little strange, consider Philip Roth’s take on the matter, quoted by Jody Rosen in his breezy, highly enjoyable book about the song:
God gave Moses the Ten Commandments and then He gave Irving Berlin ‘Easter Parade’ and ‘White Christmas.’ The two holidays that celebrate the divinity of Christ — the divinity that’s the very heart of the Jewish rejection of Christianity — and what does Irving Berlin brilliantly do? He de-Christs them both! Easter turns into a fashion show and Christmas into a holiday about snow.
Rosen has a little more fun along these lines; he also provides interesting commentary on the use of “White Christmas” as background for the lead-in to the film’s Lincoln’s Birthday number: a minstrel tune called “Abraham” in which Crosby appears as a blacked-up Honest Abe. Crosby’s character talks Reynolds into blacking up as well — in order to keep her hidden from a rival lover. Spike Lee features a clip from the start of this scene in his famous Bamboozled montage. Apparently “White Christmas” wouldn’t have been quite so white without a little blackface to throw it into relief:
A revision of Jolson’s backstage scene, blacking up for his shiksa girlfriend, in The Jazz Singer?