Resources, Advice & Tips for Covid-19
Read More

White Christmas: The History Behind the Classic Song

Irving Berlin
Photo: Library of Congress/Irving Lowens

White Christmas is one of the best selling records of all time. A holiday classic, it was written by Irving Berlin, an emigrant to the United States.

The Man Behind White Christmas

Irving Berlin was born Israel Baline to Jewish parents, who immigrated to the United States in 1893, most likely from Russia. After the death of his father, Berlin struck out on his own. Getting jobs as a singing waiter allowed him to use his musical talents. Through his jobs, he composed several lyrics and melodies for customers, which caught on with regulars. His first international hit was Alexander's Ragtime Band in 1911.

As an active serviceman during World War I, Berlin wrote a musical entitled Yip, Yip, Yapshank and produced it with the men of his company at Camp Upton. The musical raised over $150,000 to build a service center. Continuing his patriotism, he wrote his best-known anthem, God Bless America, and introduced it on Armistice Day in 1938. During World War II, he wrote the musical This is the Army, which raised $10 million for the Army Emergency Relief. President Eisenhower awarded him a gold medal in 1955 for his work in composing songs for the country.

Berlin was a co-founder of the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP). He opened his own club, the Music Box Review. Over his lifetime, Berlin wrote over 900 songs, 19 musicals, and scores for 18 movies. Surprisingly, he never truly learned to read or write music. He frequently worked with an arranger or used a special piano designed for someone who cannot use keys other than black on the piano.

Song Inspiration

White Christmas was originally written for the movie Holiday Inn, starring Bing Crosby and Marjorie Reynolds in 1942. In fact, it won the Best Song of the Year at the Academy Awards that year. It became popular with the military men overseas, who would frequently request it on Armed Forces radio, and continued the success upon returning home.

Berlin is said to have written the song in one evening, filled with longing for his boyhood New York winters. When criticized for writing a song celebrating a Christian holiday despite his Jewish background, Berlin replied that Christmas was an "American holiday."

Bing Crosby went on to sing White Christmas in the movies Blue Skies in 1946, and in the movie musical White Christmas in 1954.

  • Crosby's recording sold over 100 million copies sing first introduced.
  • More than 500 different "cover" versions exist.
  • It has been a best selling sheet music piece for over 60 years.
  • The song has been translated into several dozens of languages.

A Classic Christmas Tune Lives On

Although it has been over half a century since Berlin first introduced the song White Christmas to the public, it continues to be a beloved Christmas classic. Versions of the song have been recorded by almost everyone from Elvis Presley to Reba McIntyre. The movies Holiday Inn, Blue Skies, and White Christmas remain available for sale to the public through places like Amazon, Overstock, and eBay. During the holiday season, these movies and the countless versions of the song White Christmas can be found in stores everywhere.

The latest revival of White Christmas came when it became a stage musical at the Ordway Center for Performing Arts in Saint Paul, Minnesota.

White Christmas: The History Behind the Classic Song