Sixty years ago, American soldiers facing their first holiday season overseas adopted an unlikely pop song as their wartime anthem.
In the months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. Office of War Information pestered Tin Pan Alley to produce appropriately stirring tunes. Under strict government orders, radio stations bludgeoned Frank Loesser's "Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition" into popular favor, filling the airwaves dozens of times daily with its lusty major chords and gung-ho oaths. But the song that captured the imagination of American GIs -- and knocked Loesser's tune off the charts -- was a dulcet ballad whose lyrics sketched a Currier and Ives scene of Christmas on the home front.
Bing Crosby's recording of Irving Berlin's "White Christmas" was a "Why We Fight" anthem that never mentioned the fight, inciting patriotism in its most visceral form: homesickness.
Today, "White Christmas" remains a towering fixture of popular music -- not just the world's biggest Christmas hit, but arguably the biggest hit, period.
Estimates of total "White Christmas" record sales range from 125 million to 400 million copies. No song has sold more or been more frequently recorded.
In fact, "White Christmas" is so ubiquitous that we may have closed our ears to its many surprises and paradoxes. The "White Christmas" that returns each December as a kind of hymn -- a sacrosanct icon of the American Christmas -- began its life as something more impish: a novelty number.
Berlin first conceived the song as a send-up of Hollywood's New York expatriates, stranded at Christmastime among the swaying palms of Beverly Hills, a joke that survives in the song's little-known introductory verse: The sun is shining / The grass is green / The orange and palm trees sway. / I've never seen such a day / In Beverly Hills L.A. / But it's December the 24th / And I am longing to be up North.
Berlin himself spent several winters in Los Angeles working on movie musicals, and his Christmas song was a variation on a classic New York sport: a potshot fired at ditzy, sun-dazzled Tinsel Town. But when Crosby's chorus-only recording turned "White Christmas" into a monster hit, Berlin ordered the Beverly Hills verse stricken from its sheet music.
Still, in 1942, Berlin's holiday tune was a novelty. We can scarcely imagine a time when Christmas songs were not a pop staple, but before "White Christmas," Americans had looked to previous centuries for their yuletide music. An original Christmas song had never before penetrated the Hit Parade.
After "White Christmas," the snowstorm. In the ensuing decade, songwriters created a new canon of holiday tunes -- "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," "Silver Bells," "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" and many others -- that quickly gained the cultural stature of Handel's "Messiah" and 19th century carols.
These songs continue to shape our sense of the "traditional Christmas," arousing fantasies of a yesteryear when the yuletide was untainted by commerce and jingling bells resounded across snow-blanketed hillsides.
Few Americans seem to realize that these musical bastions of old-time holiday spirit were churned out by Tin Pan Alley's hit factories in the mid-20th century. The song that most elegantly collapsed Christmas mythology into 32 bars was the creation of the ultimate song huckster, Irving Berlin.
Here we arrive at another irony: The creator of the Great American Christmas Carol was neither American-born nor Christian, but a Russian Jewish immigrant, the son of an orthodox cantor. "White Christmas" thus stands not just as a symbol of the ad hoc invention of Christmas "tradition," but of the assimilationist striving behind the Golden Age of Popular Song, that remarkable era when Jewish songwriters from Berlin to Kern to Gershwin made a tuneful conquest of mainstream imagination.
The most surprising aspect of Berlin's song is its melancholy -- the plaintive ache for long-gone Christmases "just like the ones I used to know" that marks "White Christmas" as the bluest tune ever to masquerade as a Christmas carol. It is perhaps this more than anything that accounts for the song's enduring appeal.
Song after chipper song insists that Christmas is a time of unmitigated merriment, but we know better. Although TV commercials and sprightly carols promise a return to the hearth-fire glow of the perfect past, we find ourselves marooned in the present, battling feelings of disappointment. Who hasn't had the holiday blues?
That seasonal melancholy is captured in "White Christmas": in Berlin's lyrics, in the mournful tug of its melody, in the spooky conclusion of Crosby's recording, which does not arrive a valedictory cadence so much as trail off into the murky gloom.
Deep down we know the gentle sadness of "White Christmas" is closer to our real holiday experience than the cheer we hear in a hundred blither, lesser songs.