The Echoes of a Christmas Classic

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To the U.S. troops overseas in World War II, it was a poignant reminder of the home they were fighting for. In Vietnam, it served as a secret signal for Americans to evacuate Saigon.

A character in a Philip Roth novel calls it an example of “Jewish genius on a par with the Ten Commandments” for reducing Christmas to a holiday about snow. Authors Paula L. Woods and Felix H. Liddell, echoing other African-Americans, call it a song with a subliminal message: “This holiday doesn’t include you.”

Irving Berlin’s song “White Christmas” is more than the greatest-selling Christmas record of all time. For nearly six decades it also has served as a remarkable canvas on which Americans have painted their varied views of religion, race, home and romance.

Bing Crosby introduced the song in the black-and-white movie “Holiday Inn” in 1942. Over the next 20 years, it spent 86 weeks on the charts. His rendition was the best-selling single ever, with more than 30 million copies sold, until Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind 1997” beat it with over 33 million copies. But that doesn’t count the 200 or so versions of “White Christmas” by artists such as Jose Carreras, Elvis Presley, Louis Armstrong, Conway Twitty, Debby Boone, Donna Summer, Stan Getz, Hanson, Zamfir, and Guess, for a Death Row Records holiday album.

Berlin wrote the song one year when he was stuck in Beverly Hills, Calif., for the holidays, starting it with an introduction that isn’t widely sung any more:

The sun is shining, the grass is green, 
the orange and palm trees sway. 
There’s never been such a day 
in Beverly Hills, L.A. 
But it’s December the twenty-fourth 
and I am longing to be up north.

For Rosemary Clooney, who sang the song when it was trotted out again for the 1954 movie “White Christmas,” it evokes “sentimentality, nostalgia, familial feelings.” She continues, “The feeling it imparts is exactly the feeling you want to have on Dec. 25 and the days leading up to it.”

She still has a special affection for the well-known ending:

May your days be merry and bright 
And may all your Christmases be white

“The last phrase is one that can be sung in a very happy and giving way,” she says, adding that the last note is the hardest to sing. “It’s a Christmas card in itself.”

Berlin biographer Laurence Bergreen writes that the songwriter himself said, “Not only is it the best song I ever wrote, it’s the best song anybody ever wrote.”

The song became a surprise hit after it appeared in “Holiday Inn,” which is full of charming songs and dazzling Fred Astaire dance numbers. Berlin’s eldest daughter, Mary Ellin Barrett, can remember her father at the dinner table one night declaring: “Something amazing is happening to this song. The boys and girls overseas are buying it.”

Service men and women went wild for the number, which spoke of their homesickness. Within months, a million copies of the sheet music were sold, she says.

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

“‘White Christmas.’ The guys overseas would bawl their eyes out listening to it,” says Trent Christman, author of “Brass Button Broadcasters” about the Armed Forces Radio and Television Service. “Everyone was away from home and lonely. There were 11 million people who wanted to be home.”

In fact, some U.S. soldiers had a very different view of the song. Tennessee State University historian Daniel K. Gibran, who led a study on why no African-American soldiers in World War II received Medals of Honor, spoke to a captain in the all-black 761st Tank Battalion who saw white colleagues getting drunk and singing, “I’m dreaming of a white battalion” to the tune of “White Christmas.”

Gerald Early, director of the African and Afro-American Studies Program at Washington University, St. Louis, says Mr. Crosby’s version of the song had a unpleasant edge for many black Americans. “That’s what white people are dreaming of, a white Christmas, without any black folks around,” was the joke he remembers going around his Philadelphia neighborhood in the ’50s and ’60s.

“It had a lot to do with racial sensitivity, but also because Bing Crosby was about as white as you could get, in the white-bread sense,” says Dr. Early. “I can’t hear that song without hearing a certain amount of irony, even if it’s Ella Fitzgerald.”

Not long after the war, Charles Brown, who has been called “the black Bing Crosby,” sang a sassy response to “White Christmas.” It became a blues holiday classic: “Merry Christmas, Baby.”

Merry Christmas, Baby 
You sure did treat me nice 
You gave me a diamond ring for Christmas 
Now I’m living in paradise.

“A lot of black folks didn’t listen to ‘White Christmas,’ ” says Mr. Brown, speaking from the Shields Nursing Center in El Cerrito, Calif. “So when ‘Merry Christmas, Baby’ came out they all grasped it because it was meant for them. They said, ‘He’s writing this song for us.'”

That’s the song that epitomizes Christmas for Ms. Woods, the writer. She and her husband, Mr. Liddell, named their 1996 book, “Merry Christmas, Baby” after Mr. Brown’s song. It’s an anthology of art and writings on the African-American celebration of Christmas and Kwanzaa.

The Los Angeles couple write in the introduction to their book: “Each year, as images of pink-faced cherubs and Santas commandeer the media, many Americans feel exclude from the holiday festivities. This feeling is particularly acute for African Americans, for whom the song ‘White Christmas,’ the film ‘It’s a Wonderful Life,’ or a visit to the mall to see Santa has a subliminal message. … This holiday doesn’t include you.”

One contributor to “Merry Christmas, Baby,” syndicated columnist Julianne Malveaux, writes her reaction to hearing about a Santa Claus in New Jersey calling a black child a monkey: “I am one of those people who still cringe when they hear the tune ‘I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas.’ Yeah, I know, the white means snow, but there’s something about the sentiment that doesn’t sit well with me.” She concludes: “There is a connection between a name-calling Santa and a baton-wielding cop. And it’s the connection that makes me cringe when I hear people sing ‘White Christmas.'”

The song became so entrenched in American vernacular that it cropped up in military code. It was the secret message that informed the Americans remaining in Saigon in April 1975 to evacuate. The American Forces radio station was to signal listeners with the code phrase “Mother wants you to call home,” followed by the Bing Crosby recording. When the time came, the station staffers let the song play several times, and then put on a tape of Sousa marches and fled, writes Frank Snepp in his 1977 book, “Decent Interval.”

“For us, ‘White Christmas’ means the same thing: it’s time to cut our losses and split,” wrote John Gregory Dunne, more than 20 years later in his book “Monster: Living Off the Big Screen.” When he and his wife, Joan Didion, were writing screenplays for Hollywood, they agreed that “whenever a meeting goes badly, one of us will look at the other and say, ‘White Christmas.’ “

To the novelist Mr. Roth, the song echoed with religious irony: the greatest Christmas carol of the century written by a cantor’s son from Russia. In Mr. Roth’s 1993 novel “Operation Shylock,” the narrator rants: “God gave Moses the Ten Commandments and then He gave to Irving Berlin ‘Easter Parade’ and ‘White Christmas’ … and what does Irving Berlin brilliantly do? He de-Christs them both! Easter he turns into a fashion show and Christmas into a holiday about snow.”

The song also played a charged role in Kurt Vonnegut’s 1961 novel “Mother Night” and the 1996 movie version. The protagonist, a World War II U.S. spy, buys some Army recreation kits after the war and winds up with 26 recordings of Mr. Crosby singing the famous song. As the novel ends, he prepares to hang himself in his prison cell and says: “They say that a hanging man hears gorgeous music. … I hope [it] is not Bing Crosby’s ‘White Christmas.’ “

Director Keith Gordon opens the movie with the song playing over a shot of an Israeli prison. It was meant to contrast “this Protestant, U.S. idea of Christmas” with the cold reality of the prison and a man unwittingly involved with the killing of Jews, says Mr. Gordon. Some reviewers were incensed, he recalls, “as if the song were something very holy and we besmirched it. It shows just how powerful that song really is for people.”

Since making the film, Mr. Gordon admits to changing his own feelings about the song, which he had only known as something his parents listened to. “Now, it has all those squishy, warm meanings for me,” says Mr. Gordon, a self-described New York Jew turned Los Angeles Buddhist. “It’s bittersweet. It’s not having a white Christmas. It’s very melancholy, looking back at what you’ve lost: that childhood Christmas, when Christmas was OK.”

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