Irving Berlin was born on May 11, 1888, in Tyumen, Russia. He arrived in New York in 1893 when he was only five years old. He would later become one of the most prolific songwriters of the 20th century.
During his career, he wrote nearly a thousand songs, including “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” “Cheek To Cheek,” “What’ll I Do,” and of course “White Christmas,” which has proved to be his most popular song.
Berlin liked the song so much that he told his secretary Helmy Kresa: “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.” So far, the sales numbers surely support his claim.
Berlin wrote the song for the box office hit “Holiday Inn” which was released in the summer of 1942. “White Christmas” was performed for the first time by Bing Crosby on Christmas Day, 1941, on Crosby’s weekly NBC radio program, The Kraft Music Hall.
During World War II, Crosby performed the song for the troops overseas and it became so popular that troops continued to request records of “White Christmas” during the winter months.
It was May 29, 1942, when Bing Crosby recorded the song with the John Scott Trotter Orchestra and the Ken Darby Singers and Chorus for Decca Records. It was published on July 30 as a single at the same time “Holiday Inn” hit the movie theaters.
By the end of World War II “White Christmas” was the best-selling song of all time for the next 56 years, until Elton John’s re-release of “Candle in the Wind” after Princess Diana’s death in 1997.
“White Christmas” was so popular that Crosby had to re-record it in 1947, because the masters of his 1942 recording session were worn beyond use. After 75 years “White Christmas” is still the best-selling Christmas song of all time and it remains, to this day, the most popular recorded holiday song ever.
No one knows for sure what motivated Irving Berlin to write the song. It is widely assumed that it was written in either New York or LA in the early 1930s. Many suggest that when he wrote the song he was on the West Coast, missing his family, and gathered inspiration from the snowy winters of New York.
Berlin didn’t celebrate Christmas and his own feelings about the holiday were certainly ambivalent. He spent each Christmas Day visiting the grave of his son, Irving Berlin, Jr., who died on Christmas Day, 1928, at only three weeks old.
With just 54 words and 67 notes, “White Christmas” is the most popular Christmas song in America.
“White Christmas” has been recorded by numerous artists and it’s even listed in the Guinness World Records for selling more than 100 million copies worldwide.