Section II

The Creation of “White Christmas”

Berlin wrote an American song about a dream of better times and better places — and he wanted Bing to sing it.

Irving Berlin’s own company published the sheet music for “White Christmas” in 1942. Digital reproduction from Gonzaga University Archives and Special Collections. Courtesy of The Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization.

The first written version of “White Christmas” dates to January 8, 1940, but the inspiration for the song likely came two years earlier, when Berlin spent a lonesome Christmas in Southern California.

Berlin had been living for several years, off and on, in Beverly Hills — close to Hollywood studios, but far from his wife and daughters, their Manhattan penthouse, and the familiar bustle of the city. Berlin’s wife, Ellin, was Catholic, and they always celebrated Christmas with a large tree, piles of presents, and a candlelit dinner. As their oldest daughter recalled, it was “the single most beautiful and exciting day of the year.”2

Irving and Ellin celebrated at Christmas but also mourned a lost son (ca. 1928).
Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

But work kept Berlin in Beverly Hills in December 1937. Being apart from Ellin was particularly painful, because their first child had died in infancy on December 25, 1928. Instead of joining Ellin on their annual Christmas Eve visit to their son’s grave, Berlin reluctantly socialized with film studio executives. The sun was shining and the grass was green, but he longed to be somewhere else.

Back in Manhattan in January 1940, Berlin asked his music arranger to take down the lyrics of a new song. “Not only is it the best song I ever wrote,” he promised, “it’s the best song anybody ever wrote.”3

Berlin finished the original lyrics to “White Christmas” in January 1940.
Courtesy of The Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization.

After tinkering with the song for a couple of years, Berlin had settled on a version that connected his own lonesome Christmas to the broader turmoil of the time, including the ongoing hardships of the Great Depression and the outbreak of World War II. This new song reflected his response: the poignant articulation of an American “dream” of better times and better places — perhaps a New England town of yesteryear, where horse-drawn sleighs crossed freshly-fallen snow. Or maybe the dream was of a brighter future, when dark days would be “merry and bright” once again.

Berlin was not trying to change the Christmas tradition in America, but this song was different than most of the carols that came before it. 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.

By April 1940, Berlin had decided to take “White Christmas” to Hollywood. He envisioned a musical revolving around a retired singer whose hotel offered rooms and entertainment — but only on American holidays. He recruited director Mark Sandrich, and they came up with a title, Holiday Inn.

Using patriotic colors, posters for Holiday Inn (1942) promoted this first collaboration between Irving Berlin, Bing Crosby, and Fred Astaire. Courtesy of Universal Studios.

Berlin and Sandrich pitched the project to Paramount with one stipulation: the studio had to sign Bing Crosby to play the main character, Jim Hardy. Not only did Paramount executives do so, they also signed Fred Astaire to play Jim’s former partner. The pair would compete for the love of Marjorie Reynolds’s character, a singer and dancer who performed in Jim’s holiday-themed shows.

Berlin had collaborated with Astaire several times — most famously in Sandrich’s Top Hat (1935), which included Berlin’s hit song, “Cheek to Cheek.” Berlin had yet to work with Crosby, but his position was firm: “I am not willing to sign any contract before they have signed Crosby.”4

Like millions of Americans, Berlin had watched Bing Crosby become a multimedia star. Born in 1903 and raised in Spokane, Washington, Crosby was influenced by his mother’s Catholicism and his father’s love of music. As a student at Gonzaga in the 1920s, he sang in local venues with his friend, Al Rinker. Their success led them to Los Angeles and then New York City.

Harry Lillis “Bing” Crosby became a star on radio and on the silver screen during the 1930s (ca. 1940). Digital reproduction from Gonzaga University Archives and Special Collections. Courtesy of HLC Properties, Ltd.

Crosby launched his solo career in the 1930s with a string of hit songs, a weekly radio show known as the Kraft Music Hall, and a contract with Paramount Pictures. With his slim build and protruding ears, Crosby did not look the part of a leading man, but his easy-going demeanor and mellow voice — perfect for the microphone — made him immensely popular.

Crosby was talented yet also hard-working and modest. For many, he was a quintessential American man. For Berlin, that made him the ideal star for a musical about American holidays.

Berlin and Sandrich completed their script and songs by September 1941. The plot was predictable and most of the songs were middling, but “White Christmas” remained a promising centerpiece. Although Berlin was nervous when he first shared it, Crosby offered immediate praise. “Irving,” he said, “you won’t have to worry about that one.”5

While Berlin fretted over details, Crosby exuded confidence (ca. 1942).
Digital reproduction from the collection of Ray Rast.

Crosby quietly debuted the song on his radio show on December 24, 1941. Five months later, he recorded a new version for the Holiday Inn album, backed by a choir and orchestra. The film itself premiered in August 1942.

Although reviewers initially said little about “White Christmas,” ordinary Americans embraced it. Some historians, seeking to explain why, note that Crosby’s decision to cut the verse about Beverly Hills increased the song’s relatability. Others emphasize the emotion Crosby brought to the lyrics — perhaps as he recalled the snowy Christmases of his own Spokane childhood.

In Holiday Inn, “White Christmas” was a love song, first sung as a duet by Crosby and Reynolds (who was lip-synching).
Courtesy of Universal Studios.

But the key reason stems from the context of World War II. Crosby debuted the song less than three weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor. By August 1942, millions of Americans knew that the coming Christmas would be filled with deep longing for better times and better places.

“I am not willing to sign any contract before they have signed Crosby.”

Irving berlin (1941)

Continue to Section III. Christmas in America Before the 1940s