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White Christmas: Behind the Best Selling Song of All Time
Chances are, as you roll into winter, you’ll begin to hear the classic hit “White Christmas” repeatedly on the radio, at holiday parties, over grocery store loudspeakers and on Christmastime playlists. From there, it’ll earworm its way into your brain, and you’ll find yourself unexpectedly thinking of treetops glistening and children listening as the calendar makes way for December 25. But once the date passes, the lyrics vanish from your memory until the next winter, leaving a little bit of nostalgia in their wake.
Although the classic tune might not cross your mind for the majority of the year, “White Christmas” is actually the world’s best-selling single in music history, having sold over 50 million copies since it was released in 1942. The iconic holiday track written by notable composer Irving Berlin was popularized by Bing Crosby, one of the top entertainers of the 20th century and the notable “King of Christmas.” But what exactly made this tune in particular so ubiquitous and enduring? To answer this question, we’re taking a merry and bright look into the history of the festive tune and its celebrated singer.
How Did Bing Crosby Become the “King of Christmas”?
Harry “Bing” Crosby, born May 3, 1903 , became one of the most successful musicians of the 20th century, his passion for music beginning when he was around 15. As a teenager, he worked at an auditorium called Spokane’s, where he was often in contact with local and touring musicians. One of these performers included Al Jolson, a famed entertainer of the 1920s.
Seeing Jolson sing and dance struck a chord in Crosby, and the young artist began to consider a career in the entertainment industry. After enrolling at Gonzaga University and running a band with college friends, Crosby relocated to Los Angeles to pursue music full-time. He enjoyed some success in smaller performances throughout the 1920s, but it wasn’t until 1931, when Crosby signed a solo contract with producer Mack Sennett, that his career began to take off.
In 1931, Crosby landed a CBS radio show. On it, he performed a number of original tunes that repeatedly found public acclaim. The emerging artist spearheaded new forms of non-formal swing music, including the wildly popular vocal “crooning.” His innovations with this style of jazz resulted in a warm yet energetic musical experience that delighted listeners and helped solidify his name in the industry. Crosby also drew on inspiration from other genres, including pop and western, to entice new audiences. His kind public image, unique music and enchanting voice soon turned him into a beloved public figure.
Crosby’s success as a singer opened the door for him to pursue an acting career and saw him performing in films such as Going Hollywood (1933), Pennies From Heaven (1936) and Rhythm on the River (1940). As his career flourished after he signed with Paramount Pictures, numerous composers clamored to write songs for him to perform. Throughout his tenure in the entertainment business, Crosby recorded over 1,600 songs — but despite the enormity of this repertoire, there’s one tune that stands out amongst the rest as the most successful of Crosby’s lifetime: the holiday hit “White Christmas.”
What Led to the Commercial Success of “White Christmas”?
By the time Crosby was introduced to “White Christmas,” the artist was already known well in the entertainment industry. So, it’s particularly interesting that a Christmas jingle ended up as one of the standout performances of his successful career.
Irving Berlin, the songwriter who penned “White Christmas,” was an equally famous composer who created hundreds of hit songs throughout his career. He originally wrote the holiday song as an accompanying track for the 1942 film Holiday Inn , which starred Crosby, Marjorie Reynolds and Fred Astaire in the leading roles. Crosby first performed the song on Christmas Day in 1941 on the NBC radio show, The Kraft Music Hall .
The eventual classic went on to earn an Academy Award for Best Original Song in 1942, a win largely owed to the captivating performance featured in Holiday Inn by duet partners Crosby and Reynolds. It also became the featured tune for the hit film White Christmas , which was one of the top-earning movies of 1954.
While Christmas songs had never previously topped the charts beyond the winter season, Crosby’s rendition became more than a symbol of the holiday. The lyrics painted the picture of an ideal life — time spent at home with loved ones — and captured the nostalgia of holiday seasons past.
Why Has “White Christmas” Continued to Captivate Us?
“White Christmas” has continued to echo as one of the top Christmas classics in history. By the 2010s, the Bing Crosby version of the song had sold over 50 million copies, making it the best-selling single of all time. According to the 2009 version of the Guinness Book of World Records , the song has sold approximately 100 million copies across various versions that include covers by other artists.
But how did a mellow tune from the 1940s manage to stay so relevant after all these years — and why haven’t other Christmas songs replicated similar popularity? Some of the song’s initial success is due to the fact that, during and following WWII, “White Christmas” gave soldiers a warm reminder of home and helped people think of the possibility of peace while recalling simpler days of yore. “It was the enthusiasm of these troops that really propelled the song and made it a hit,” Jody Rosen , author of White Christmas: the Story of an American Song , told CBS.
The dreamily evocative lyrics served as a balm to soothe the homesickness of people overseas, which largely allowed it to take hold in U.S. cultural consciousness. But the efforts of other artists have kept the tune alive, too. Besides Crosby’s honorary place on most Christmas radio broadcasts and holiday music playlists, the song seems to be renewed each season by artists who also adore the heartwarming tune. Approximately 500 other versions of the song have been produced by a roster of artists that includes greats like Frank Sinatra, Michael Buble, Elvis Presley, Billy Idol, Dean Martin and Kelly Clarkson.
Even with changes in the ways that audiences consume music, the single hasn’t fallen in popularity. The streaming platform Spotify boasts that “White Christmas” has been streamed over 257 million times. “Winter Wonderland” has received over 112 million streams, and “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” has charted over 81 million plays. And to this day, Crosby’s legacy highlights his key contribution to our library of Christmas singles — it’s truly his performance, more than any other, that helps us immerse ourselves in the merry and bright feelings of the holiday season.
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Why do we sing Christmas carols?
13 December 2021, 10:10
By Rosie Pentreath
We explore the origins, history and joy of coming together to sing Christmas songs in public settings.
Listen to this article
Nothing says “ Christmas is here” quite like the melodious strains of festive music meeting our chilly eardrums. And Christmas carols especially usher in a unique warmth and joy that brighten the winter months for all.
Christmas carols are defined simply as traditional songs that celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, sung ahead of Christmas Day. They are invariably tuneful, memorable, and magnificent.
But how did they come about, and why do we sing them? Let’s dive in…
Read more: A dive into the surprising history of the Christmas carol
We sing Christmas carols because they are a way of telling the story of the nativity and the birth of Jesus Christ. As well as explaining what happened around Jesus’s birth, the songs enable us to encapsulate and express the joy, devotion and awe-inspiring scenes of the nativity.
As well as telling the nativity story, Christmas carols spread joy and warmth during the coldest months of the year in the Northern hemisphere. In Christmas, the Christian faith brought together traditional winter feasts and celebrations, which were designed to spread light in the dark, deep midwinter months, and the celebrations of Jesus’s birth. Christmas carols have an appropriately uplifting and celebratory style to honour such an occasion.
And it’s no wonder they have endured as a popular way to pinpoint and celebrate the arrival of the Christmas season. Christmas carols, whether they are in a minor or a major key, almost always have wonderfully memorable melodies and captivating harmonies. Performed by choirs of voices, often with an organ or instrumentalists accompanying them, the songs boom out and resound with positivity.
Read more: The 30 greatest Christmas carols of all time
Once in Royal David's City – Chapel Choir of the Royal Hospital
What are the origins of carol singing?
In the Middle Ages, groups of ‘wassailers’ went from house to house singing for the purpose of joy-spreading and entertaining throughout the winter period.
There would have been pagan songs for Winter Solstice that predated Christian hymns but, over time, Christmas carols began to be heard more and more in the wintertime.
In the 17th century, Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans in England actually banned the singing of Christmas carols. During the English Civil War, and with his subsequent rule, Cromwell was on a mission to cleanse the nation of its most decadent excesses – and these included warming up the winter with feasts and music celebrating the birth of Jesus.
A 1644 Act of Parliament effectively banned Christmas for nearly 20 years, although people continued singing Christmas carols in secret, and it was official: barracking around and singing carols was not considered appropriate for an occasion as solemn and sacred as the birth of Jesus.
Fast forward to the Victorian era, once the Puritans were long gone, and people were collecting and singing Christmas carols once more – much like the medieval wassailers had been doing all those centuries ago.
Lyrics from popular carols we hear today, like ‘ God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen ’ and ‘ While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night ’, are likely to have originated from Medieval times, but their modern melodies are Victorian.
Read more: Advent music – 10 best carols and hymns to begin the festive season
Rebecca Dale: In the Bleak Midwinter. Performed by St Martin’s Voices, under Andrew Earis
What are the origins of carol services?
The modern carol service is thought to have been invented by Edward White Benson in 1880, at Truro Cathedral in Cornwall. The cathedral was newly complete but, the story goes, its erection wasn’t particularly popular due to a popular old church and homes being demolished in its wake. In an attempt to appease his parish in the winter months, and keep parishioners away from the vices of drinking and garricking in public houses, Benson developed what became the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols .
On Christmas Eve 1918, the famous Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College, Cambridge was first performed, to offer solace to people at the end of the First World War. Ten years later, in 1928, it was broadcast on the radio for the very first time.
The Oxford Book of Carols , edited by Percy Dearmer, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and Martin Shaw, was also published in 1928. It created the opportunity for more people to come together for communal Christmas music-making than ever before.
The Boar's Head Carol
What is the oldest Christmas carol?
One of the first carols recorded is ‘Angels Hymn’, which is from 129 AD. By the 12th century, history records nativity themed carols being performed widely to celebrate the birth of Jesus.
And one of the oldest printed carols is the ‘Boar’s Head Carol’ (listen above), which dates from 1521. It’s believed to have been heard annually at Queen’s College, Oxford as Christmas lunch was carried in.
Classic FM is the home of Christmas music. Join us throughout December for festive programmes and traditional carols .
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Songs of Christmas Past
You’ll be humming your favorite Christmas songs as you view a selection of the period rooms decorated for Christmas. Each features a different Christmas carol written in the decade the room depicts. What can the song tell us about the time period it comes from?
God Rest You Merry Gentlemen
1770s bedroom and parlor in massachusetts.
The lyrics to this song first appeared in print in England around 1700. “Rest you merry” was an older way to wish someone peace and happiness —sorely needed here on the eve of the American Revolution.
Even if they wanted peace and happiness, the family here may not have wished each other a merry Christmas. In the 1770s, some groups did not observe the holiday at all, and not all celebrations were alike. Some people spent the day in pious devotion, while others made merry with an excess of food, drink, and noise. During this rare period of rest in the agricultural calendar, even those who did not celebrate Christmas made special foods at this time of year.
1820s parlor in the united states.
This song, translated into English as O Christmas Tree, never mentions Christmas in the original 1824 German version. Der Tannenbaum (“The Fir Tree”) praises the tree’s constancy and reliability in staying green throughout the year, unlike the fickle nature of humanity.
While some people decorated churches with greenery for Christmas in 1820s America, you would only see a Christmas tree in the house of a German family. These small trees were placed on a table and decorated with cookies, fruit, and toys. It was not until later that the idea spread to other ethnic groups in America.
Joy to the World
1840s parlor in alabama.
Englishman Isaac Watts wrote the words in 1719, basing them on a biblical psalm, but the tune we know today did not appear until 1839. Lowell Mason wrote the music and titled it “Antioch” after the ancient Syrian city (now in Turkey), an important center of early Christianity.
This joyful hymn would suit the Christmas celebrations on a 19th century southern plantation. Greenery decked the houses and the head of the household gave gifts to children and to slaves. It might be the only time of year the enslaved people were allowed to visit their families living on other plantations. Music, dancing, and feasting for all completed the holiday’s merriment.
1850s parlor in california.
“Jingle Bells, or The One Horse Open Sleigh,” was never about Christmas. Rather, its lyrics paint an image of spending time with girls on a fun sleigh ride. From its first publication in 1857, this song grew in popularity to become the first song broadcast from space in 1965.
This carefree spirit reflected Yuletide celebrations in the mid-1800s. Christmas for many Americans was a time of revelry involving guns and alcohol. A diary entry in 1852 recorded that “San Bernadino, California... sounded like a battle field[.] The boys are celebrating Christmas.”
1860s bedroom in texas.
The German family whose bedroom you see here could have sung either the original German “Stille Nacht,” first performed in 1818 on a guitar, or the 1859 translation into English.
Christmas celebrations by the mid-1800s had turned away from public revelry and towards the home, with family members exchanging both homemade and purchased gifts. Wartime shortages made candy an expensive and rare treat, so the children here would be especially excited to open their stockings on Christmas morning.
The Twelve Days of Christmas
1910s dining room.
The old English folk tradition of “counting songs” gave us this well-known carol. The words come from the 1700s but the music we recognize was not written until 1909.
By the early 1900s, gift-giving was an integral part of the Christmas holiday. Many people exchanged cheap and useless novelties, and for the more “handmade” feel you could purchase pre-assembled gifts that just needed a few finishing touches to personalize them.
This room contains one “gift” symbolizing each of the twelve days of Christmas.
Ding Dong! Merrily on High
1920s library in michigan.
While a 1589 French dance tune gave us the music, it wasn’t paired with words until 1924. The author of the lyrics deliberately made them sound antique by incorporating Old English verb forms and Latin phrases.
The mix of secular music and religious words captures the dilemma of Christmas celebrations in the early 1900s. The holiday was moving into the public sphere, with the first community Christmas tree erected in 1912 and the first National Christmas Tree in 1923. This created a dilemma for Americans who were not Christian; the Jewish community in particular debated how best to participate in the public cultural holiday but not its religious aspect.
Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town
1930s parlor in indiana.
Radio star Eddie Cantor sang this song for the first time in 1934 and it was a big hit at that year’s Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
Over the years, images of Santa Claus varied widely, from a short beardless elf to a tall Father Christmas with flowing robes. Santa’s appearance as a large, white-bearded man in red prevailed by the end of the 1800s, and a 1930s family would be familiar with this depiction of the “jolly old elf.”
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