The Tragic Story Behind Irving Berlin’s ‘White Christmas’

“White Christmas” is a classic holiday song. Written by Irving Berlin, it’s a staple during the month of December. Recorded by Bing Crosby and many others, “White Christmas” is the best-selling Christmas song of all time. 

Unlike other popular holiday songs, it’s not upbeat. Irving’s lyrics are a wistful, sad recollection of holidays past. “White Christmas” is sad. It’s made even more so by the tragic story behind the lyrics. 

Irving Berlin originally wrote ‘White Christmas’ for a musical

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The origin of “White Christmas” is largely unknown. What is clear about the song is that Berlin wrote it for a Broadway musical about the holidays that eventually became the 1942 movie musical, Holiday Inn. At the 1943 Academy Awards, Berlin won his first and only Oscar for Best Original Song. 

It’s unclear when and where Berlin penned the song. One of his daughters, Linda Emmet, told NPR her father may have written it in 1938 or 1939 in Arizona and/or New York.

Jody Rosen, the author of White Christmas: The Story of an American Song, believes Berlin may have written it during 1937. The composer spent Christmas away from his family making a movie in Beverly Hills, California.

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‘White Christmas’ may be about the death of Irving Berlin’s son

Berlin didn’t celebrate Christmas — he was a Russian Jewish immigrant — but the 25th day of December held a certain significance for him personally. According to what Rosen told NPR, the songwriter’s son died on Christmas Day in 1928. He was only three weeks old.

Irving Berlin practices music on the piano for his debut musical
Irving Berlin practices music on the piano for his debut musical | American Stock/Classicstock/Getty Images

So every year after the death of their infant son, Berlin and his wife would visit his grave on Christmas. Rosen told the outlet Berlin may have tapped into his feelings about his son’s death to write “White Christmas.” 

“The kind of deep secret of the song may be that it was Berlin responding in some way to his melancholy about the death of his son,” he said.

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Irving Berlin thought another song would become a hit

Writing the music Holiday Inn, Berlin didn’t think “White Christmas” would be a hit. Speaking to BBC after the film’s release he said he thought a song about another holiday would gain popularity. 

“I had a song in that called ‘Be Careful, It’s My Heart,’ for Valentine’s Day,” Berlin said. “And that’s the song I picked as the big hit, and that’s the song as a publisher I plugged. And it was a fair success. But I also had a song in there called ‘White Christmas.'”

“White Christmas” went on to become even more famous following the release of 1954’s White Christmas starring Crosby and Danny Kaye.

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