'White Christmas' by Bing Crosby: The making of the era-defining seasonal classic

19 December 2023, 11:00

Mary Crosby interview: Bing Crosby's daughter looks back at White Christmas

By Mayer Nissim

Bing Crosby kicked off the age of the new Christmas standard with his classic performance.

Listen to this article

Loading audio...

Every year, a glut of artists do their very best to get their Christmas recordings added to the seasonal canon, but it's not nearly as easy as it looks.

When all's said and done, there may be a bit of truth to granny telling ya that the old songs are the best... at least when it comes to 'White Christmas' by Bing Crosby.

For nearly 80 years now, 'White Christmas' has ruled the airwaves in December, whether or not the snow has actually started to fall.

But do you know which songwriter wrote the classic Christmas song, or in what Bing Crosby movie it first appeared (clue: it wasn't White Christmas).

Read on for everything you ever wanted to know about 'White Christmas', the song made famous by Bing Crosby.

Who wrote 'White Christmas'?

Irving Berlin at  Los Angeles City Hall
Irving Berlin at Los Angeles City Hall. Picture: Getty Images

Like so much of the Christmas canon, 'White Christmas' was written by a Jewish songwriter.

The song was penned by Great American Songbook maestro Irving Berlin, who had been born Israel Beilin in the Russian Empire before immigrating to the US when he was five years old.

With over 1,000 songs to his name including the likes of 'Alexander’s Ragtime Band', 'God Bless America', 'Cheek To Cheek' and 'What'll I Do', you'd think that Berlin himself would be spoiled for choice when picking his favourite

But he immediately realised the genius of 'White Christmas' before it was even recorded.

Berlin worked by dictating his songs to secretary Helmy Kresa, and the story goes that when it came to 'White Christmas', he told here: "Grab your pen and take down this song. It’s the best song I ever wrote. Hell, it’s the best song anybody ever wrote."

When was 'White Christmas' released and in what film did it first appear?

Holiday Inn | Bing Crosby Sings "White Christmas"

Everyone knows that 'White Christmas' appeared in the 1954 musical White Christmas, starring Bing Crosby opposite Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney, and Vera-Ellen and filmed in glorious Technicolor.

But White Christmas wasn't actually where 'White Christmas' made its bow. The song first appeared over a decade earlier in Bing's Holiday Inn, which was also packed with Berlin songs and co-starred Fred Astaire, with Marjorie Reynolds, Virginia Dale, and Walter Abel.

You don't see Holiday Inn much on the telly these days, probably because the lyrics and... makeup for the song 'Abraham' (about Abraham Lincoln ending slavery) have aged incredibly badly, so the existence of White Christmas is especially welcome.

Holiday Inn movie poster
Holiday Inn movie poster. Picture: Getty Images

'White Christmas' was first released on the Decca label in 1942 on 10-inch shellac single, with Berlin's 'Let's Start The New Year Right'.

It has received several physical re-releases over the years, with another shellac version in 1947, vinyl discs in 1950 and 1954, and on CD in 1989, in a package that included Bing's later Christmas duet 'Peace On Earth/Little Drummer Boy', recorded with David Bowie.

What is 'White Christmas' about?

White Christmas (Official Video)

'White Christmas' is superficially about Christmas, and the wish for snowy seasons of yore.

It doesn't mention Jesus, Mary, Joseph, or anything else from the gospels, which makes sense given that Berlin wouldn't have grown up going to church.

Instead you've got a hazy, dream-like wish for a picture-perfect Christmas ("where the treetops glisten"... "hear sleigh bells in the snow").

It's striking that as early in the "modern" Christmas era of 1942, you've got a song so steeped in nostalgia ("just like the ones I used to know)", and a longing to belong.

'White Christmas' is, at its heart, not purely a song about Christmas, but a song about America and the desire of a first-generation immigrant not just to belong and be part of the still-evolving American Dream, but even to do his bit to craft it.

Where did 'White Christmas' get in the charts?

One of the many releases of Bing Crosby's 'White Christmas'
One of the many releases of Bing Crosby's 'White Christmas'. Picture: Alamy

Backing up Berlin's confidence in the song, 'White Christmas' is the biggest selling single EVER.

Bing Crosby's various versions have topped an estimated 50 million copies worldwide (and you can bundle on countless streams in recent years to that figure, too).

The song has been covered more times than we could even begin to list – more on that very shortly – and if you add those covers to the Crosbys, you can easily double the sales to over 100 million copies.

Bing Crosby - White Christmas

The Billboard Hot 100 wasn't established until 1958, but before then 'White Christmas' had topped various charts before then in the US.

Since then, the song has reached number 12 on the Billboard Hot 100, and gone top five in the Holiday 100 and Adult Contemporary Charts.

The official UK charts didn't launch until 1952, but it peaked as high as number five over here in December 1977, a couple of months' after Bing passed away.

Who has covered 'White Christmas'?

Frank Sinatra - White Christmas (Visualizer)

As we've already noted, 'White Christmas' is one of of the most covered song in the history of popular music (SecondHandSongs lists over 2,300), so we're not going to start listing every version or we'll be here till Christmas 2042.

We do have to mention major charting versions by Michael Bublé, Gwen Stefani and Meghan Trainor, and the cast of Glee, of course, and there are a few others we'd be remiss not to give a shoutout to.

There's Frank Sinatra, who covered it as early as 1944, with other pre-1950 versions coming from The Ink Spots, Perry Como and Sister Rosetta Tharpe.

Taylor Swift - White Christmas (Audio)

After that there was Patti Page, Rosemary Clooney, Elvis Presley, Pat Boone, Johnny Mathis, Mitch Miller, Dean Martin, Peggy Lee, Paul Anka, Ella Fitzgerald, Chet Atkins, Frankie Avalon, Andy Williams, Doris Day, etc. etc. etc. If they were a famous singer of the '50s, '60s or '70s, they sung it, basically.

More recent covers include versions by Linda Ronstadt, Bright Eyes, Crash Test Dummies, Il Divo, Girls Aloud, Taylor Swift, Katy Perry and Rod Stewart.