Ever Wonder Why Bing Crosby’s White Christmas is the Best-Selling Song of All Time?
By Jim Kempton
When I was a kid, the Christmas album most frequently heard in our home was Bing Crosby’s White Christmas. Even to this day I’m rarely motivated to put on other holiday music. Bing Crosby did for Christmas what Bob Marley did for reggae—it’s just about all you really need.
Along with the expected classics “Jingle Bells” and “Walking in a Winter Wonderland,” Crosby does the ultimate take of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” His scatting line “you mean the big fat man with the long white beard?” is still the best ever version of that old chestnut.
In an already multi-ethnic America, Crosby included carols from every corner of the American experience: “Christmas in Killarney” is the Irish celebration of the holiday. “Mele Kaliki Maka” is the local Hawaiian greeting at Christmas. “Adeste Fidelis,” with lyrics in Latin, was authored by Portuguese King John IV, known as the “Musician King.” “Away in a Manger” is credited to the German Protestant Lutherans. “God Rest ye Merry Gentlemen” is an old Celtic folksong. “Good King Wenceslas” praises faith in the Czech and Slavic nations of Eastern Europe. “Faith of our Fathers” is a hymn in memory of Catholic martyrs. “Silent Night” was originally written and performed for a mass in Salzburg, Austria. “Deck the Halls” is a Welsh Yuletide melody. Even “White Christmas” had an ethnic twist: it was written by Jewish-born Irving Berlin.
“White Christmas” went on to become the best selling song of all time. But without a doubt the most powerful piece on the album is the unforgettable melody “I’ll be Home for Christmas.” Originally released October 1, 1943, it immediately became a huge hit. The wistful, heartfelt lyrics touched a tender place in the hearts of Americans, both soldiers and civilians, who were then in the uncertain depths of World War II:
“I’ll be home for Christmas
Where the love light gleams
I’ll be home for Christmas
If only in my dreams…”
“I’ll Be Home For Christmas,” my father used to tell me, was what he and the millions of servicemen in the European and Pacific Theater would write home to their loved ones as they slogged through the mud and the blood and the inferno that they hoped they would survive in the winters of 1943, ‘44, and ‘45. Yank, the GI magazine, said Crosby “accomplished more for military morale than anyone else of that era”.
Things haven’t changed much in the last seven decades. Somewhere every Christmas there are US Marines in the field of battle with their radios on. Chances are they will hear Bing Crosby crooning “Silver Bells.” Across the nation there are families praying for the safety of their loved ones in combat zones. And all around the world there are weary refugees, war torn countries, and oppressed peoples yearning to throw off the yoke of tyrants.
Upbeat, ethnically inclusive, and brimming with unbridled optimism, the song selection of White Christmas reflects all that was good about America. And it is still what we believe about ourselves today.
So when White Christmas begins to play in our house every yuletide, it doesn’t just sound like the best Christmas album to me. It sounds like the only one.
Jim Kempton was born in a Navy Hospital on Guam. He grew up on military bases in Japan, Hawaii, Okinawa, Vietnam, and the Philippines until he started High School. To all the Marines at Camp Pendleton and around the world he wishes them the merriest Christmas. And hopes they will all be home for it.