It’s one of the best-selling singles of all time, and Bing Crosby’s version of “White Christmas” is still an iconic slice of American holiday pie. Written by Russian Jewish immigrant Irving Berlin, it perfectly captures a time and place in the history of the U.S., and by default, of the world.
On this first Christmas without my father, I miss him terribly but each time I hear “White Christmas” I think of him and his stories of hearing that song during World War II. Having been introduced in 1941, it came at the right time for lonely soldiers as Bing sang the song on radio for the first time that Christmas Day. We have heard of the shot heard round the world, well this was the tune that spanned the globe.
My father spent too many Christmases away from home during that war, but he recalled Christmas 1944 when it still seemed that there was no certain victory for the Americans. Bunkered down in a French town near enemy lines, my father could hear the bombs going off that Christmas Eve just a mile or so away. He and a few of his men (Dad was a sergeant) decided to take advantage of a bottle of cognac they had found in the basement of the house where they were spending the night.
Drinking the delicious drink out of their mess cups, the fellows had a small radio and listened to Christmas songs. As the music played each one shared a story about home, and my father could picture his house, parents, and dogs sitting around the Christmas tree. Dad said when old Bing came on and sang his now famous song, none of these big burly fellows had a dry eye.
When my father and one of his men when outside to relieve the sentry, it was cold and snowing. They noticed a dark figure coming towards them in the woods, and all three raised their rifles. The fellow collapsed as he approached, and Dad and the others discovered that he was a wounded German soldier.
They brought him inside where a medic tended to his wounds. The bombs continued to go off in the distance, and a little after midnight Bing’s song came on the radio again. The wounded enemy soldier glanced up at Dad and smiled saying, “Der Bingle.” My father offered him a mess cup with cognac in it, and said, “Merry Christmas.”
Years later Dad recalled that story wistfully. That German soldier survived and was moved to a field hospital the next day. Dad always remembered that Christmas Eve, and he spoke of the appeal of “White Christmas,” noting that even the Germans liked the tune. There are no doubt many similar stories, but this was Dad’s and he liked to tell it.
He always noted that “White Christmas” was not just any song. Every time a soldier heard it, no matter where he was stationed, it brought a memory of someone or someplace he loved. Dad noted that soldiers always tried to put up a tree, even near a battlefield. They all weren’t sure if they would ever see home again, but they resiliently celebrated despite the war around them, and the poignancy of the lyrics and Bing’s crooning got to them every time they heard it.
With Dad gone now, I feel a connection to “White Christmas” that is very personal. When I listen to it sometime on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, I will raise a glass of cheer and toast my father. I will not just be toasting him but all those of America’s greatest generation. They fought a most pernicious foe and, if they had failed, the world as we know it wouldn’t exist.
All these years later “White Christmas” has an evanescent ability to touch us across time, and we think of the “snow” as being a metaphor for peace and love, which is what Christmas Day means to many of us; however, we don’t need snow for the song to have its magical affect. So raise a glass, toast someone you love, and this Christmas will be “just like the ones I used to know.” Now if we could just hear those sleigh bells!