Skip to main content

1942 and 2020: Wishing for a “White Christmas” in troubled times

Written By | Dec 12, 2020

WASHINGTON. The situation was anything but “merry and bright” when Bing Crosby recorded Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” on May 29, 1942. Eleven days later (April 9) the US military in the Philippines surrendered to Japanese Imperial forces. 76,000 US and Filipino defenders were forcibly marched 85 miles to prisoner-of-war camps. This inhuman march becoming known as the “Bataan Death March.”

An estimated 10,000 men died from hunger, disease, or outright murder at the hands of Japanese troops.

Troops, White Christmas, Bing Crosby, Irving Berlin, Bataan Death March

American prisoners of war in the Philippines. Photo: US National Archives.

And Christmas was anything but a happy memory for songwriter Irving Berlin. His three-week-old son died on Christmas day in 1928. A sad anniversary he and his wife commemorated with an annual graveside visit.

In his book “Bing Crosby: Swinging on a Star: The War Years, 1940-1946,” author Gary Giddens writes:

Troops, White Christmas, Bing Crosby, Irving Berlin

Irving Berlin. Photo: Wikipedia,

“He [Irving Berlin] told his assistant that ‘White Christmas’ was the best song he had ever written, possibly the best song anyone had ever written. Yet not even he gauged its full potential, its emotional resonance.”

Berlin said that when he presented the song to Crosby,

“I was nervous as a rabbit smelling stew. I sang several melodies, and Bing nodded quiet approval. But when I did ‘White Christmas,’ he came to life and said, ‘Irving, you won’t have to worry about that one.’”

But with America embroiled in a desperate struggle to preserve Western Civilization, Crosby feared the song’s “emotional resonance” might be too much for homesick American servicemen to bear.

In a post-war interview, Crosby said when appearing before American troops overseas, he was reluctant to sing “White Christmas” for fear it would cause “nostalgic yearning among the men, that it made them sad. For this reason, several times I tried to cut it out of the show, but these guys just hollered for it.”

Troops, White Christmas, Bing Crosby, Irving Berlin

Bing Crosby entertains US and British troops in London in 1944. Photo: US National Archives.

Renowned Lincoln biographer Carl Sandberg wrote of the song’s popularity among America’s fighting men,

“Thousands of US servicemen were facing snowless Christmases from North Africa to Guadalcanal. When we sing ‘White Christmas,’ we don’t hate anybody. Way down under this latest hit of his, Irving Berlin catches us where we love peace.”

With US military personnel serving in far-flung posts, from Guam to Kuwait, there’s no doubt their hearts will warm with every Christmas card and package received from family and friends. And find their minds filled with memories of home upon hearing the familiar strains of Bing Crosby singing Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas.”

Merry Christmas to them and to you.


Top Image: Bing Crosby sings “White Christmas” in the 1942 film “Holiday Inn.” Movie screen capture.

Read more from Steve Lopez

Steven M. Lopez

Originally from Los Angeles, Steven M. Lopez has been in the news business for more than thirty years. He made his way around the country: Arizona, the Bay Area and now resides in South Florida.