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Sunday, October 23, 2016

The Song that Changed Christmas

Irving Berlin's famous song, "White Christmas" isn't at all what you think. It has a backstory that literally changed the way we celebrate our most cherished--and profitable--holiday.

"Legend has it," says WSJ writer Will Friedwald, "that Irving Berlin was in Hollywood working on a movie, and missing his family in New York, as he wrote the musical score for (the movie) Holiday Inn.

Berlin was a prodigious song writer with about 1250 to his credit including 25 that reached number one on the pop charts of the day. He wrote "Alexander's Rag Time Band" in 1911, God Bless America in 1918, Easter Parade in 1933, There's No Business like Show Business in 1946  and a LOT MORE , mostly sentimental old favorites... so old and so sentimental that if you are under 40, you perhaps can't even hum the tune, let alone know the song. Hey, times change as they must. I just put my spats in a garage sale last week.

White Christmas, was first sung and played by Bing Crosby for his leading lady as he sat at the piano, and it is still one of the most played songs every Christmas season. If the words are not engraved in your heart, here are the first two verses:

I'm dreaming of a white Christmas
Just like the ones I used to know
Where the treetops glisten and children listen
To hear sleigh bells in the snow
                                                       I'm dreaming of a white Christmas
                                                       With every Christmas card I write
                                                     May your days be merry and bright
                                                   And may all your Christmases be white

Christmas just wasn't as big then as it is now. Oh sure, trees and gifts and Santa... but it was so toned down by comparison that nobody had Christmas sales starting before Thanksgiving. 'Black Friday' was unheard of and sometimes, an apple (not the computer) was a worthy gift. Jingle Bells was the top Christmas song of the day and worse, there was no Charlie Brown special! How did we survive?

White Christmas was first written as a variety number to represent that season in a mix of others, but it was taken to heart and resonated deeply as we were just eight months into World War II, deeply worried and needing something that lifted spirits. There was no Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer or I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus. White Christmas was richly flavored to where our hearts and dreams were.

It became the centerpiece of that day's blockbuster movie, Holiday Inn. "The song's first audience," said Friedwald, "comprised soldiers and those on the home front who embraced it as a prayer for peace." And it came on the scene just in time for the introduction of the long-playing record and that new medium, television. It was those two that virtually reinvented Christmas for all the emotionally needy of the time.

As Friedwald said, the song "created its own holiday mythology with itself at the center as a hymn for peace, love and family." And it changed Christmas sentimentality forever.


Two years later, still in the midst of "The Great War,"  Berlin wrote the perfect seasonal follow-up,  I'll Be Home for Christmas  . This link is my blog post on that classic, based on an actual experience. And cry if you must. I did.

Imagine Christmas today without these two songs. It just wouldn't be the same.

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