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Mark Steyn on ‘White Christmas,’ the original Christmas no1

24 December 2012

Some songs are hits — Number One for a couple of weeks. Some songs are standards — they endure decade after decade. And a few very rare songs reach way beyond either category, to embed themselves so deeply in the collective consciousness they become part of the soundtrack of society. They start off the same as all the other numbers — written for a show or a movie, a singer or an event — but they float free of the writer, they outlast the singer, transcend the movie, change the event. There were a couple of what we now think of as seasonal standards that predated Irving Berlin’s entry into the field, yet neither became a pillar of the Xmas pop repertoire, because until ‘White Christmas’ came along there was no such thing.

But, in the decade after Bing Crosby introduced the number in Holiday Inn (1942), Berlin’s colleagues responded with ‘Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!’, ‘Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer’, ‘Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas’, ‘Frosty The Snowman’ — all the ‘Yule Day gravy’ (as Variety put it) that in one order or another makes up every Christmas album from Andy Williams to ’N Sync. In a fragmented culture, these are now the last songs we all sing, whether our tastes incline to rap or country or the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. They represent the zenith of a universal popular culture we’re unlikely to see again.

When something’s that big, you take it for granted. If you’ve heard ‘White Christmas’ in a shopping mall or elevator or while stuck in touch-tone hell trying to make a telephone booking, you don’t usually think, ‘Gee, “White Christmas” again. That must be the 50th version this month.’ But, if you did, you’d want to know how it got that way. What particular combination of circumstances blessed ‘White Christmas’ out of all the other songs written that month? Berlin, wrote Jody Rosen in his book about the anthem, ‘had tried to kick-start the Tin Pan Alley Christmas song some years before.’ In 1912, the year after his first big hit with ‘Alexander’s Ragtime Band’, he’d published ‘Christmas Time Seems Years and Years Away’, which, from his point of view, it was. Before radio, before a real record industry, the sheet-music business couldn’t see the point of working a song that would be dead on 26 December. The notion that it might be a seasonal insurance policy, returning year after year for decade after decade, never occurred to them.

But it occurred to Irving Berlin. He seems to have had the idea for ‘White Christmas’ a couple of years before Crosby introduced it, and then started plotting what to do with it. ‘You don’t have to worry about this one, Irving,’ Bing told him. They both thought the movie and the record would do all right. The movie did all right, the record was the world’s biggest-selling single for 55 years, until Dianysian ululating propelled ‘Candle in the Wind ’97’ into the record books. Even then, some of us bet Bing would reclaim the trophy in the fullness of time, and so he has.

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There are two elements that helped ‘White Christmas’ on its way, one of which Berlin couldn’t have foreseen: Pearl Harbor. Had America entered the war in Europe in 1939, ‘White Christmas’ might have been just a hit record from a so-so movie. Instead, 1942 was the American serviceman’s first Christmas away, in the Pacific, under glorious sunny skies that only made home seem even more distant. In Operation Shylock, Philip Roth wrote:

‘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 Christmas – and what does Irving Berlin brilliantly do? He de-Christs them both! Easter turns into a fashion show and Christmas into a holiday about snow… He turns their religion into schlock. But nicely!’

But Roth is missing the point. In the end, ‘White Christmas’ isn’t a song about snow. They had white Christmases in Temun, Siberia, where Berlin was born, but a white Russian Christmas wouldn’t be the same: It’s not about the weather, it’s about home. In 1942, those GIs out in the Pacific understood that. Twelve years later, building a new movie named for the song, Berlin acknowledged the men who made it special, in the best staging in the picture: Bing singing in the rubble, accompanied only by Danny Kaye’s musical box, as the boys rest their chins on their rifle butts and think of home. Berlin couldn’t have predicted Pearl Harbor, but there’s no surprise that, once it had happened, his were the sentiments the country turned to.

Christmas was not kind to Irving Berlin. At 5 o’clock on the morning of Christmas Day 1928, his 31/2-week-old son, Irving Junior, was found dead in his bassinet. ‘I’m sure,’ his daughter Mary Ellin told me a few years back, ‘it was what we would now call “crib death”.’

Does that cast ‘White Christmas’ in a different light? The plangent melancholy the GIs heard in the tune, the unsettling chromatic phrase, the eerie harmonic darkening under the words ‘where children listen’; it’s not too fanciful to suggest the singer’s dreaming of children no longer around to listen. When the girls grew up and left home, Irving Berlin, symbol of the American Christmas, gave up celebrating it. ‘We both hated Christmas,’ Mrs Berlin said later. ‘We only did it for you children.’

To take a baby on Christmas morning mocks the very meaning of the day. And to take Irving Berlin’s seems an even crueller jest — to reward his uncanny ability to articulate the sentiments of his countrymen by depriving him of the possibility of sharing them.

Berlin was a professional Tin Pan Alleyman, but his story, his Christmas is there in the music. 23 years after his death, he embodies all the possibilities of America: his family arrived at Ellis Island as poor and foreign and disadvantaged as you can be, and yet he wove himself into the very fabric of the nation. His life and his art are part of the definition of America. Whatever his doubts about God, Berlin kept faith with his adopted land — and that faith is what millions heard 70 years ago in ‘White Christmas’.

The above is adapted from Mark Steyn’s 2002 Spectator review of ‘White Christmas’ by Judy Rosen. 

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Show comments
  • FifthHorseman

    It is always nice to reread a story about something nice, that does not contain the lastest murder story or crime event. Just a simple story of what a person passion is. Writing music is not like writing a book where you have pages to build a story. In a song it is the first few lines that makes it happen. In this case the music will outlive the person who wrote it. It time even the creater will be for gotten. But that song will live on forever.

  • Marcus

    Bring back Mark Steyn.

  • Malfleur

    When is Mark Steyn going to be allowed to express his subversive, conservative, political views again in a regular column? When the magazine is no longer run by the progressives. ?

  • RonKean

    Whenever I hear about Irving Berlin’s success like Mark said I also think about his first hit ‘Alexander’s Ragtime Band’. Gershwin’s first hit was “Swanee”. Both paid homage to the founder of American Pop music, Stephen Foster. Alexander’s Ragtime Band mentioned ‘Swanee River’ and ‘Swanee’ was about’ Swanee’ obviously. And Stephen Foster took it from the blacks. So American Pop Music was started by black people, ripped off by Stephen Foster and Foster was ripped off by Irving Berlin and George Gershwin. Michael Jackson was the King of Pop so what goes around comes around.

  • Raman_Indian123

    The West has become more humane and tolerant with every step it took away from Christianity. As long as Christianity ruled Europe was a cess pit of bigotry and hate and supersition. Christianity spread anti-Semitism as never before and this led to the near-extermination of the kinsmen of Jesus.

    Jesus, a Jewish rabbi, emphasised the importance of observing the Mosaic code. He was scrupulous about maintaining all the rules of being Jewish. Again and again he declared that he had been “sent” to the House of David and them only – that is, to ethnic Jews.

    He never lived to see what happened among people claiming to be his followers after his death, such as Paul and the so-called Fathers of the Church. They went against his teaching. They converted gentiles, discarded many central Jewish rules of living, and propagated anti-Semitism of a virulence and scale never before known.

    Jesus would have been appalled that this happened in his name.

    He was Jewish, not “Christian”. If he were to come again he would go to the synagogues, not the churches.

    “Christians” know that “their” Saviour was never theirs; that is one great source of bitter anti-Semitism.

    If he came back he would head for the synagogues to be with his kinsmen, and would snub the churches.

    • David Ferguson

      May God bless you.

      • Raman_Indian123

        I have no great objections to being blessed by God, but when “Christians” ask me to follow Jesus I have to tell them that means converting to Judaism since he was a Jew, and this is impracticable.

        • Raman_Indian123

          I have noticed how uncomfortable Christians become when one points out the irrefutable fact that Jesus was a Jew and not a Christian. It rattles them. They sense that if this truth is widely understood, the life will drain away from their religion.

    • Eliyahu Konn

      How silly and non-historical is this name J-esus, may it finally be revealed to all as the name of the chief Greek-Roman idol – Ze-us, and then be forgotten forever.

      Not one ossuary from the 1st century in Israel has either of these names.

  • Austin Barry

    Mark is back! Let the bells ring out!

    • Austin Barry

      Er, no, sorry, he’s not.

  • Wilhelm

    Frank Sinatra singing ” Jingle Bells,” it’s quite catchy. This style of music represents a 1950’s WASP America that no longer exists.

    • Daniel Maris

      Wasn’t Sinatra a wop rather than a WASP? Not sure where he sits in your racial hierarchy. And I can’t imagine you enjoyed him dissing the Wermacht in Von Ryan’s Express. Does Sammy Davis Junior give you palpitations BTW?

  • Daniel Maris

    Good song, undoubtedly, but some of the more modern ones are v. good in their own way. Fairytale of New York by the Pogues is an especially atmospheric one I would say.

    My favourite carol is In the Bleak Winter. I think a musicologist might find some echoes of that in I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas.

  • Baron

    Two miracles at once, the world hasn’t ended, the ‘one-man global content provider’ in Fraser’s Spectator. Is Baron dreaming or what?

    If that’s a re-start, if more’s to come, a Nobel prize for you, Fraser, thanks.

    Mark, Sir, Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, and the most fulfilling 365 days that follow.

  • Hexhamgeezer

    Shame the article wasn’t a political one….

    • Hexhamgeezer

      apologies psspr typing – should be ‘an overtly political etc..

  • Noa

    The first of many hopefully, Mark.

  • CityBlue

    The Sage of New Hampshire, Canadian in Excelsis, the straightest goy to love musicals…. Back at the Spectator – Christmas is come 24 hrs early. Looking forward to more.

    • HooksLaw

      Yes lets hear what he has to say on the relevance of assault rifle ownership.

    • Jabez Foodbotham

      Seeing it is an edited reprint of a 2002 Spectator article the welcomes back may be just wishful thinking.

  • Rhoda Klapp

    Welcome back, Mark. Don’t be a stranger.

    • Austin Barry

      Oh, he isn’t back, I see that this is a 2002 piece’adapted’ by Judy Rosen.

      Perhaps, to be acceptable to Fraser, we can have the return of Steyn political items ‘adapted’ by Alex Massey?

  • Frank Furter

    There is no doubt that White Christmas touched the hearts of soldiers away from home for the first time. The film Holiday Inn is rarely seen (even on the box) and has a rather silly story. To capitalise on the success of the song, and its love by serviceman, the film White Christmas was made – has anyone not seen it? It was a staple of Christmas day TV for years. Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas comes from a much better film: Meet me in St Louis (1944). Written by Martin and Blane, it is an altogether sadder, even darker song, than the Berlin classic. It too was appreciated by servicemen, but then the war had moved on and a mood of grim reality had taken over: the invasion was in full swing. As the war ended, Mel Torme wrote the Christmas song (chestnuts roasting in an open fire…), which reflects a return to normality.

    • Colonel Mustard

      They don’t seem to show these classics on TV now. Christmas films appear to have descended into the realm of Hollywood “Santa” dross and “family” films featuring cuddly killer whales. The inevitable result of TV stations being run by kidults I suppose.

      • Frank Furter

        I agree – the best Christmas film on TV this year is the Muppets Christmas Carol. At least it is true to the book.

    • HooksLaw

      ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’ had its lyrics changed to be more optimistic when Frank SInatra re-recorded it. I think bits of the lyrics have regularly been changed. I presume the original melancholia was there to fit in with the needs of the film.

      • Frank Furter

        This Christmas song demonstrated its ability to touch in a film called The Victors (1963). It is one of the finest depiction of the soldier in war. The film seems to have vanished; but if it reappears, I urge you to see it. It is episidic in structure; one long scene shows the execution of a deserter, in a snowy french countryside, the background music being Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.

  • MirthaTidville

    Would this be the opportune time to wish all staff at the Speccie as well as all esteemed Coffee Housers, whatever their views, the very best compliments of the season to you and yours and may 2013 be one of good health and cheer….Best wishes to you all

    • Olaf from Norway


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