OK, admit it. You like the Christmas song, “White
Christmas.” Or at least you did until you heard it too many times as
Well, maybe I am overdoing it.
But even if
only half of us enjoy the song, that fact illustrates the
piece’s popularity and success. In fact, this song may be the best-liked song
in the USA, and not just for Christmas. It has been recorded more times, and
those recordings have sold more copies, than any other song.
The popularity of “White Christmas” is more than just a
interesting tidbit to be remembered for the Christmas edition of the Jeopardy
quiz show. It reveals how a large part of America has thought about Christmas
for over half a century.
Irving Berlin wrote “White Christmas” in 1942 for the film
“Holiday Inn,” starring Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire; it won Berlin an Oscar.
In 1954 a second film along the same theme was released with Bing Crosby and
Danny Kaye. To help promote the film, they named it after its featured song,
The 1950s were a pivotal time in twentieth-century America.
Young people returned from WWII, got married, and started families. Families
required places to live, which led to a boom in new houses and new
neighborhoods. And these families were religious and required places to worship
near them. In response, more churches (and synagogues) were built in America
during the 1950s than in any other 10-year period of our history. People
attended the new churches in droves and for those who could not, the new
technology of television devoted Sunday morning to religious programming.
In this context, it may come as a surprise that “White
Christmas” was such a popular song. It had no religious content. It did not
mention the gospels’ Christmas story, nor even refer to worship, a church, or
anything that could be construed specifically Christian. Instead, the words
recall the glistening of snow, the sound of sleigh bells, and writing Christmas
cards. The last two lines even sound like a greeting card, “May your days be
merry and bright, and may all your Christmases be white.”
Nor does the film “White Christmas” fill in the religious
elements lacking in the song. The film emphasizes the importance of seeking and
holding on to relationships after WWII, in particular, finding marriage
partners. The two male leads, both song-and-dance men, are ex-soldiers and
still single. By the movie’s end, they have found women who love them and who
the movie implies they will marry. The film telegraphs the message that
Christmas is a time for families, and the holiday’s special character helps
The film neither emphasizes nor even mentions the religious
aspect of Christmas. The closest the film comes are references to bells, once
referring to sleigh bells and the other time to “merry bells,” rather than to
church bells. The show’s other songs avoid mentioning the word “Christmas,”
singing about “Snow” and “Happy Holiday.”
So how should we interpret the popularity of the secular
song “White Christmas” with the high level of American religiosity in the
The answer is simple: American
society was comfortable acknowledging and even celebrating all aspects of the
Christmas holiday. To talk about family, snow and Christmas cards at one moment
did not mean that a person did not talk about Jesus, Mary and the shepherds at
another. To say “Happy Holiday” in one breath did not mean that a person did
not say “Merry Christmas” in another.
The explicitly religious character of the holiday did not
block out elements that lacked such links. America’s heightened religiosity of
the 1950s was inclusive and multifaceted; it allowed for a wide variety of
religious and non-religious expression and did not find it threatening.