Just about everyone loves “White Christmas,” Irving Berlin’s beautiful, longing ode to snow and the Christmas spirit that captures both the celebration and underlying melancholy present for many at the holiday. While Bing Crosby’s version is the biggest-selling single of all time (temporarily elbowed aside by Elton John’s Diana-tribute remake of “Candle In the Wind” – ugh), I am partial to the Drifter’s swinging R&B version.
Not only is it the time of year for the perennial favorite to shine, but the tune has been in the news of late as well. The great singer Rosemary Clooney, who co-starred in the film White Christmas, died last June; she was the subject of a tribute gala this week:
- Hollywood paid belated last respects to singer Rosemary Clooney on Tuesday night with a star-studded gala in which a show business who’s who recalled what a wonderful woman she was while Tony Bennett and kd Lang teamed up to sing “What a Wonderful World.”
It was a night to remember as singers Linda Ronstadt, Diana Krall, Bennett, Lang, Keely Smith, Mimi Hines and Michael Feinstein serenaded an audience at the Beverly Hills Hilton hotel that ranged from celebrities including Nancy Sinatra, Diahann Carroll and Bob Hope’s wife Dolores to nurses and neighbors of the singer who died last June after six decades singing jazz and pop tunes.
Her nephew, actor George Clooney, recalled her as a woman of wicked wit. He said that when he sent her a note asking “What’s the hurry” in 1996 when she married a man she had lived with for decades, she replied “We had to, I’m pregnant.”
….The evening ended with a film clip of Rosemary Clooney singing one of the songs most associated with sometime singing partner Bing Crosby: “I’m Dreaming of A White Christmas.” [Reuters]
And I’ll bet there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
The song is also the subject of a new book by Jody Rosen, reviewed by Barry Gewen in the NY Times:
- Superlatives have always attached themselves to ”White Christmas.” It is the most recorded song of all time, and has been performed by everyone from the Beach Boys to Charlie Parker, from Bob Marley to Bob Dylan. It has been sung in Hungarian, Japanese, Swahili and Yiddish; when Berlin visited troops in New Guinea during World War II, he heard tribesmen singing it in their local language.
….Rosen gives us quick, serviceable biographies of Berlin and Crosby; traces the song’s origins back to 1937, when Berlin was spending an unhappy Christmas in Beverly Hills, away from his family; provides just enough technical analysis to instruct readers without overwhelming them; explains how homesick G.I.’s adopted the poignant melody as their own wartime anthem; and examines Berlin’s impact on Christmases down to the present.
….His thumbnail history of American popular music helpfully delineates a crucial shift in taste around the time ”White Christmas” first landed on the Hit Parade. The urbane, modern 30’s sensibility, as represented by songwriters like Cole Porter and George Gershwin and by performers like Fred Astaire, was yielding to a softer, more sentimental and nostalgic mood. The shift was summed up by the transformation of the witty, acerbic Rodgers and Hart into the cozy, idealizing Rodgers and Hammerstein. ”White Christmas” was, significantly, the first Christmas song to become a hit.
Rosen also notes that the classic Christmas songs and movies of the ’40s and ’50s were largely the work of Jews:
- His discussion hinges on the urge of the Lower East Side immigrants to assimilate into the larger society. But assimilation could cut two ways, and Rosen quotes a hilariously malicious passage from Philip Roth’s novel ”Operation Shylock”: ”God gave Moses the Ten Commandments and then He gave Irving Berlin ‘Easter Parade’ and ‘White Christmas.’ The two holidays that celebrate the divinity of Christ — the divinity that’s the very heart of the Jewish rejection of Christianity — and what does Irving Berlin brilliantly do? He de-Christs them both!
….Contrary to Roth, the American Christmas never really was a celebration of the divinity of Christ. As it took shape in the 19th century, it was always an occasion focused on family gatherings, tree trimmings and the exchange of gifts. The more it evolved into a public holiday, something that began to occur around the end of the 19th century, the more secular it had to become: government offices, after all, cannot close in honor of Jesus’ putative birthday. Irving Berlin contributed to a process that was under way long before he started dreaming of precipitation, a process that continues today and can be expected to accelerate as millions of non-Western, non-Christian people pour into the country.
So Berlin contributed the theme song for the secularization of Christmas, which may be a good or bad trend depending upon your perspective, but it sure is a great song.