America's classic Christmas song was written by a Jewish immigrant.
Born in Russia with the name Israel Baline, he was the genius songwriter we know as Irving Berlin. He wrote “White Christmas” for the 1942 Hollywood musical “Holiday Inn,” starring Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire. On set, the movie's hit number was presumed to be another Berlin composition, the Valentine's Day song “Be Careful, It's My Heart.” At first, it was. Then “White Christmas” captured the public's imagination and hasn't quite loosed its grip since.
As my colleague Mark Steyn puts it in a winsome podcast interview with Berlin's daughter Mary Ellin Barrett, “Berlin loved America and he sang its seasons”: Easter (“Easter Parade”), July Fourth (“God Bless America”) and, of course, Christmas.
Some estimates point to sales of all versions of “White Christmas” topping 100 million. According to Albert and Shirley Menendez in their book on American Christmas songs, it made the charts for two decades straight, and as late as 1969 was the No. 1 Christmas song in the country.
It is a song built on yearning. In lines at the beginning of the original version that aren't usually performed, Berlin writes of being out in sunny California during the holiday: “There's never been such a day/in Beverly Hills, L.A./But it's December the twenty-fourth,/And I'm longing to be up North.”
Steyn thinks that if America had entered World War II a few years earlier, the song might never have taken off. But 1942 was the year that American men were first shipped overseas, and it was released into a wave of homesickness. Mary Ellin Barrett says it first caught on with GIs in Great Britain. During the course of the war, it became the most requested song with Armed Forces Radio.
The irony of the son of a cantor writing the characteristic American Christmas song is obvious. Yet, his daughter says, “He believed in the great American Christmas.” As a child on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, he loved to look at the little Christmas tree of his Catholic neighbors. He and his Christian wife Ellin (theirs was a scandalous mixed marriage), put on elaborate, joyous Christmases for their three daughters. Not until later would they reveal that the day was a painful one for them because they had lost an infant child on Christmas.