Why We Can’t Forget ‘White Christmas’

December 2010

Fondly known as ‘The Old Groaner’, Bing Crosby was the most successful singer of the last century: he sold more than 250 million records. He single-handedly invented the style of singing which we call ‘crooning’. Previous singers had been almost absurdly exact in their enunciation of lyrics, but he developed a loose, open sort of phrasing that managed to sound like the chap next door – the chap next door with a superb voice, that is!

Perhaps nowadays Bing Crosby is regarded by younger listeners as a bit too cosy, but it’s worth reminding ourselves that when he started his solo career in the early 1930s, he was not afraid to tackle controversial themes. It was he who agreed to record ‘Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?’, effectively one of the first American protest songs, in 1932. With lyrics by E. Y. Harburg and music by Jay Gorney, ‘Brother’ takes the form of a lament by a man reduced to begging on the street in the era of the Great Depression, after being ‘always there, right on the job’ whenever there was work needed doing. Believing that when he ‘built a railroad’ or ‘built a tower’, he was ‘building a dream’, he went on to go ‘slogging through Hell’ in the service of his country during the Great War. Now all he can do is stand in line ‘just waiting for bread’, or else ask: ‘Brother, can you spare a dime?’ The new Jerusalem that was promised has turned into Babylon, in which hungry people walk the streets while the wealthy and powerful are indifferent to their sufferings.

Jumping forward a decade, we find Crosby crooning the song with which he is most associated: ‘White Christmas’. It was written by his old friend Irving Berlin in 1942 for the film Holiday Inn, in which Crosby starred. Berlin wasn’t sure about the song, but Crosby assured him that it would be the big ‘hit’ which it in due course became. Crosby knew exactly how to sing it, and it is still hard to imagine anyone else making such a good job of it as he did. He manages to sound sad and hopeful, relaxed and yearning, all at once.

The song did indeed become very popular. This had a lot to do with the time in which it was written: that is, just as the United States decided to involve themselves in the fight against Germany and Japan.  Earlier songs by Berlin had been mainly about glamour and good times: for example, ‘Blue Skies’, ‘Cheek to Cheek’ and ‘Top Hat’. Now, with so much being at stake in the Second World War, people wanted something much homelier which embodied lasting values. Neither their relatives back home nor the troops serving abroad could get enough of Bing Crosby’s moving evocation of a pastoral winter landscape: ‘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.’

If ‘Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?’ is about a phoney promise, a pseudo-Jerusalem, ‘White Christmas’ is about our need to retain a vision of the garden of Eden. It is an example of what we might call nostalgia for paradise. Interestingly, the word ‘nostalgia’ comes from the same source as the word ‘homesickness’: literally, in Greek, it means ‘the pain that arises from the desire to return home’. Berlin & Crosby convey with great skill that yearning for a place and a time that we hope against hope existed once, but may be gone forever. For many troops, there was a strong likelihood that they would never return to any kind of home at all, let alone that one depicted in the song; but it was important for them that they were fighting to defend an ideal, which ‘White Christmas’ articulated for them. The season about which Crosby sings represents what scholars of religion calls ‘sacred time; the place that he dreams about represents ‘sacred space’.

As always with genuine nostalgia, the point is to remind ourselves that the pain and turmoil of the present is not how things were meant to be. We all have some version of Eden in our heads, whether we get it from the Bible, from reading Tolkien (Middle Earth) and A.A. Milne (Winnie the Pooh’s Hundred Acre Wood), or from listening to Van Morrison (Cyprus Avenue). We know what we mean by paradise, but we know that it is unlikely that it will ever be regained. At the same time, we are aware that it represents something precious, which we need to retain in our collective memory. That’s why the song is curiously both uplifting and heart-rending. When Crosby sings ‘May all your Christmases be white’, he is effectively saying ‘May you have your glimpses of Eden … even though we all now we can never get back there permanently.’ But of course, even his expert crooning isn’t up to fitting all that into one line!

Whenever I hear ‘White Christmas’ I always think of a short poem by A.E. Housman. Though its landscape is very different, both in location and weather, and though it is much more obviously mournful than Berlin’s song, they both seem to me equally poignant:

Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?

That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.

We are saddened by such thoughts; but we surely take immense pleasure in the beauty of the way they’re expressed. Not unlike ‘White Christmas’…

Laurence Coupe