February 20, 2019

This famous Christmas song was written by a Cantor’s son

Late in 1940, so the story goes, Irving Berlin found himself in Los Angeles writing songs for the movie “Holiday Inn,” starring two of the biggest stars of the moment, Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire.  The challenge Berlin had set himself was enormous: to capture the spirit of major holidays in popular song.  And the Christmas song had to be the best of all. 

Nothing about Los Angeles, where he found himself, reminded him of the Christmases he'd known as a young boy back in New York City. The snow, the cold weather, the holiday spirit, the camaraderie – it was all absent.  What he and everyone else yearned for was a white Christmas, so he designed a chorus to illustrate that seemingly universal longing, and he made it as simple as possible, as was his habit. 

He never paused to ponder the irony of a cantor's son from Russia writing about a holiday celebrating the birth of Jesus; for Berlin, this was an American holiday, pure and simple, and an American song. He worked at night, as he usually did, night after night, polishing the tune, which had come to him all at once.  His term for that was a “round” song, one that came to mind seemingly fully formed.  And “White Christmas,” as he called this song, was as “round” a song as he'd ever written.  It had the inevitability of a folk song – which many assumed it was – but it sprang from his mind and memory. 

He continued to work on the song when he returned to New York, until the morning he charged into the office of his longtime musical transcriber, Helmy Kresa, whose job it was to devise musical notation for Berlin songs, and declared, “I want you to take down a song I wrote.  Not only is it the best song that I ever wrote, it's the best sone anybody ever wrote.” Helmy rolled his eyes with doubt, but the moment Berlin sat down in front of a piano and played the song, Helmy “knew right away that it really was the greatest song ever written” because of the way Berlin had juxtaposed the “warmth of Southern California and the cold snow.” The result was a hit, and not just a hit, but by some accounts the most popular song ever, selling more sheet music (in the days when when sheet music ruled) than any other tune. 

Every Christmas, the song gains a new lease on life, as timeless as it was when Berlin wrote it.

Bergreen is the author of AS THOUSANDS CHEER: THE LIFE OF IRVING BERLIN (Viking/DaCapo)