Essential Facts About White Christmas, The Bestselling Song Of All Time

Here's a fun exercise: When we say, "I'm dreaming of a ..." what pops to mind? Of course, we know the answer — you're dreaming of a "white Christmas," just like the ones you used to know. The iconic holiday tune, first recorded eight decades ago, has become so totally ingrained in American culture that you can probably recall every word, and you're probably doing so right now, whether you want to or not. You're welcome.

Everybody knows "White Christmas," but here's something you might not have known until you read the title of this article: The song has sold more copies than any other in history (via Guinness World Records), and it's not particularly close. The versions recorded by original singer Bing Crosby (yes, that's "versions," plural; we'll circle back to that) have sold north of 50 million copies. 

Combine that with the truckloads sold by the roughly one ker-billion artists who have covered "White Christmas," and the total climbs right on into the stratosphere; by comparison, in second place is Elton John's Princess Diana-memorializing 1997 reworking of "Candle in the Wind," which sold a measly 33 million. It so happens that "White Christmas" has a pretty interesting history, and guess what? We're about to fill you in.

White Christmas was written by the great Irving Berlin

Legendary songwriter Irving Berlin is a man whose works you're definitely familiar with, as long as you're more than, oh, 10 minutes old or so. He's one of the primary writers of what has become known as the "Great American Songbook" (via the Great American Songbook Foundation), a collection of tunes written in the first half of the 20th century which have become so ingrained in popular culture that many of their titles have just become things people say. Berlin himself penned such songs as "God Bless America," "There's No Business Like Show Business," and yes, "White Christmas" — a tune he struggled a bit with, since he was Jewish.

According to The Wall Street Journal, Berlin was tasked with penning a number of holiday-themed tunes for an upcoming film production, and drew upon his childhood memories of experiencing Christmas as an outsider when writing the song. Rather than emphasizing the religious nature of the holiday (as was standard at the time), Berlin found a secular angle — a simple yearning to be with friends and family, and a melancholy remembrance of Christmases past. His initial struggle didn't keep him from being quite satisfied with the finished composition; he once oh-so-humbly opined that "White Christmas" was not only his best song, it was "the best song anybody ever wrote."

Berlin had a tragic connection to Christmas

Complicating matters further as Irving Berlin was preparing to write "White Christmas" was the fact that he had a personal connection to the holiday of the sort nobody would wish on anyone. According to NPR, Berlin had suffered an unthinkable family tragedy on December 25, 1928, over a decade before penning the tune, when his 3-week old son Irving Berlin Jr. died in his crib.

Every Christmas Day thereafter, Berlin and his wife would "celebrate" the holiday by visiting their son's grave, and it's certainly difficult to imagine that this circumstance didn't contribute to the melancholy, longing feel of "White Christmas." According to the Los Angeles Times, this was not even Berlin's first go-round with the unexpected death of family members. His father died when he was only 13, and at 24, he lost his first wife to typhoid; the loss of his young son at the age of 40 was only the latest round of tragedy to befall the songwriter.

The LA Times noted that throughout his career, Berlin downplayed any connection between his personal life and what he referred to as his "sob ballads" — but any songwriter will tell you that their own experiences and emotions are the well from which their best compositions spring, and it's telling that Berlin holds "White Christmas," an ode to a holiday laced with exclusion and tragedy for himself personally, in such high esteem.

The song's composition was unorthodox for the time

The arrangement of "White Christmas" might seem classic, even simple, to most listeners — likely due to the fact that most of us came out of the womb already familiar with the song. But for the time, the tune's composition was deeply unorthodox in nearly every way — from its chord structure to the arrangement of its melody and everything in between.

As noted by Time, the song has no bridge; Berlin simply traverses his scale, then comes back to the beginning, emphasizing the underlying feeling of longing. The Wall Street Journal pointed out that the song's emphasis on certain lyrics was also unusual — in the first stanza, "I'm" and "white" are given whole notes, while "dreaming" and "Christmas" are de-emphasized. Speaking with PBS, composer and pianist Rob Kapilow broke down the unusual structure of the song's chords, pointing out Berlin's subtle use of minor chords and extra notes, sometimes dissonant ones, that sneak in as the song goes on.

All of this, Kapilow says, serves the purpose of enhancing the melancholy feel of the tune. Those sly minor chords and dissonant tones are "almost like fog on the window as you're looking out at those snowflakes," he says, adding, "Great composers don't set words to music. They set the emotion behind the words." Indeed, "White Christmas" contains only 54 words — but Berlin's composition imbues each one with meaning.

The song has a secret first verse

Another interesting element of "White Christmas" is that, if one listens carefully, it appears to begin with the chorus, which ordinarily should not show up until well into the song. As it happens, Berlin did originally include an opening verse — one which doesn't appear in virtually any recording of the song, and which might have lent an unwanted specificity to its simple narrative.

According to KQED, the missing verse places the narrator in Los Angeles, where they're not known to have a heck of a lot of white Christmases or, you know, snow in general. Its lyrics are, "The sun is shining, the grass is green / The orange and palm trees sway / There's never been such a day / In Beverly Hills, L.A. / But it's December the 24th / And I am longing to be up north." According to music historian Arne Fogel, the verse is included so infrequently that he himself has only heard it performed once, on a television show in the late '60s.

It's easy to see why Irving Berlin might have chosen to exclude it — the California setting takes away just a bit from the song's universality, and opening the song with what otherwise would have been the chorus only adds to the uniqueness of its structure.

Its original singer is one of the first multimedia stars

To present his masterpiece to the world, Irving Berlin could hardly have picked a more qualified vocalist. In the '30s and '40s, there were few bigger stars than Bing Crosby, a man whose face and voice permeated pretty much every aspect of popular culture — and it was he who debuted the tune on Christmas Eve 1941, on the radio show he regularly hosted, "Kraft Music Hall" (via The Wall Street Journal).

According to Spokane Talk (Crosby was a native of that lovely Washington town), the singer made his solo debut in 1931 after paying his dues in bands such as the Rhythm Boys, which also included legendary trombonist Tommy Dorsey. Crosby's rise as a solo artist was immediate; according to AllMusic, he racked up no fewer than 22 hit songs throughout the '30s, employing a vocal style so unique that the term "crooning" was invented to properly describe it.

At the same time, Hollywood took note of Crosby's talents, and he began to pop up on the big screen; beginning in 1940 with "Road to Singapore," he co-starred with comedian Bob Hope in a very successful series of similarly titled films (via IMDb). Once the new medium of television came into play, he conquered that as well, hosting a series of variety specials and appearing as a guest on others — making Bing Crosby a multimedia star decades before that term would come into common usage.

The original versions are not the one you've heard

Per the The Wall Street Journal, Bing Crosby's debut performance of "White Christmas" on that Christmas Eve in 1941, before it had even been recorded, carried with it an extra-heavy sense of melancholy. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, which finally drew the United States into World War II, had taken place just weeks before — and for those who tuned in to the performance, the song's aura of sad nostalgia must have been potent indeed. According to the Lost Media Wiki, the recording of this performance has never been publicly released in its entirety.

Crosby didn't record the tune until 1942, in an 18-minute session accompanied by the Trotter Orchestra and the Darby Singers (via New Jersey 101.5). The song became such a massive hit that Crosby, along with all of the original musicians and vocalists, were enlisted to re-record a near-perfect recreation of that 1942 session just five years later, in 1947 — because the original master recording was threatening to literally fall apart due to overuse. When you hear Crosby crooning the tune, it's almost certainly the 1947 version you're hearing — but for the sake of comparison, you can check out the original 1942 recording above.

The song debuted in a Christmas movie, but not the one you think

Now, if you're a film buff, you're probably aware that there is a 1954 film titled "White Christmas," and that this film starred Bing Crosby. But as you may have parsed out, this film capitalized on the success of the song, which had already sold a truckload of copies over the previous dozen years. The movie in which the tune made its first appearance was 1942's "Holiday Inn," in which Crosby and Fred Astaire crooned and danced their way through a whole slew of holiday-themed numbers composed by Irving Berlin.

Per The Wall Street Journal, Berlin had a few concerns about how the song would be presented in the film, even hiding behind a set to observe the filming of the number. He was far less concerned with the recording, as most radio stations of the time focused on live, in-studio presentations as opposed to recorded tunes — but that all changed at the onset of the Second World War, as radio programmers leaned toward recorded music with ever-greater frequency. Repeated spins of "White Christmas" on the radio pumped up the tune's popularity, but it had already become something of an instant classic due to the success of "Holiday Inn." According to the Oscars website, the film was nominated for four Academy Awards, taking home only one — best song, for "White Christmas."

White Christmas has a strong connection to World War II

According to the National WWII Museum, sales of sheet music for "White Christmas" and Bing Crosby's recording went through the roof in late 1942, due in large part to demand from American soldiers overseas. The song's sentiment of personal, heartfelt longing to be home with family for the holidays was one that understandably struck a chord with the troops, and when Crosby himself would perform for them in USO shows, it was a tune they always requested — and Crosby always obliged, if hesitantly.

Per NPR, Crosby once expressed in an interview that he was wary of the "nostalgic yearning" that the song would stir up among the troops, saying that he "didn't come that far to make them sad," but that "these guys just hollered for it." The Spokesman-Review also quoted Crosby's nephew, Howard Crosby, remembering his uncle as having expressed the same sentiment with even more heartbreaking clarity.

"I once asked Uncle Bing about the most difficult thing he ever had to do during his entertainment career," Howard Crosby said. "He didn't have to think about it." That most difficult of performances came at a 1944 USO show, at the end of which Crosby "had to stand there and sing 'White Christmas' with 100,000 GIs in tears without breaking down himself."

White Christmas popularized the secular Christmas song

Irving Berlin obviously knew he was onto something special with "White Christmas," but even he might not have known just how special. According to Smithsonian Magazine, prior to the tune's explosion in popularity, there were virtually no Christmas songs that weren't centered on the religious aspects of the holiday. Beyond simply being what Berlin described as perhaps "the best popular song ever," it was a tune that single-handedly created a new genre, and an accompanying industry — the secular Christmas carol, a new generation of holiday classics that were ripe for interpretation by all manner of popular vocalists.

Seattle Met noted that Berlin was aware of the risk he was taking with the tune. Bing Crosby's biographer, Gary Giddins, stated that Berlin "knew he was treading on dangerous ground removing Christ from Christmas," and settling on the more universal metaphor of snow as a symbol for the emotions associated with the season. But it turned out to be a shrewd choice, paving the way for songs from "Jingle Bells" and "Winter Wonderland" to "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" and "Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer" (our personal favorite) to become holiday classics.

No other holiday song has as many recorded versions

Of course, it stands to reason that the Mother of All Popular Christmas Songs would be subject to commandeering by a ridiculous number of pop artists, but we have to admit to a slight bit of exaggeration with that "one ker-billion" figure that we previously floated. In actuality, according to ASCAP, "White Christmas" has been recorded, and we quote, "well over 500 times in dozens of languages." This makes it the single most-recorded holiday tune of all time, and we'd venture a guess that there may be an artist or two keen to take a crack at it in the future.

Of course, a number of these cover versions have become hits in their own right, a circumstance which began not long after Bing Crosby's 1942 original topped the charts for 11 weeks straight (via Billboard). Among the most notable of these are versions by Frank Sinatra, The Drifters, Ella Fitzgerald, and Otis Redding — and these were all within the first few decades of the original's release. In more recent years, the tune has been interpreted by such megastars as Garth Brooks, Taylor Swift, Meghan Trainor, Gwen Stefani, and hey, even the cast of "Glee."

Irving Berlin took particular offense to one cover

In 1957, Elvis Presley was well on his way to cementing his place as the King of Whatever This Newfangled Rock Stuff was, and as one might imagine, the rise of performers of his stripe didn't sit too well with traditional songwriters and composers like Irving Berlin. When it came time to record a Christmas album, Presley decided to include "White Christmas" — very much to Berlin's annoyance, as he could not stand the budding superstar.

Per NPR, Judy Rosen, author of a book about "White Christmas," described how Berlin took Presley's cover not as a compliment, but as "sacrilege." Of course, as long as royalties are paid to the publisher, any artist can cover anything they want, so Berlin had no legal avenue to prevent the recording. Instead, he took the unusual step of publicly lobbying radio stations to avoid playing Presley's version of his classic — an effort which, of course, was less than successful.

According to Billboard, "Elvis' Christmas Album" — with an assist from Berlin's greatest songwriting achievement — shot to the top of the charts, eventually becoming no less than the bestselling Christmas album of all time. To add insult to injury, also included on the record was a cover of the 1948 country tune "Blue Christmas" (via Wide Open Country) and a single containing both colorful Yuletide songs reached the Top 20 in the UK, per Gold Radio.

Bing Crosby took no credit for the song's success

Bing Crosby is, by any standard, a legend in the world of entertainment. According to The Spokesman-Review, he's to this day the recording artist with the most No. 1 songs in history, with 41 — handily ahead of both the Beatles and Elvis with 24 and 18, respectively. He's notched over 100 top 20 hits, has over 100 film and television credits (per IMDb), and has been nominated for three Oscars, winning one for best actor for 1944's "Going My Way." It's no wonder that he's the vocalist behind the far-and-away bestselling song of all time — but as far as he was concerned, he deserved no credit for the indelible imprint that "White Christmas" left on popular culture.

In a 1958 piece in the York Daily Record, Crosby stated as much in the oh-so-delicate parlance of the time. "I just can't take any bows for that one — really, a jackdaw with a cleft palate could have sung it successfully," he said. "You've got to give full credit to its composer, Mr. Irving Berlin." Fair enough — but without Crosby's star power and dulcet vocals, "White Christmas" might never have become the cultural touchstone that it has. We're going to go and give it a listen, and no matter when or where you happen to be reading this, we have one simple wish for you: May your days be merry and bright, and may all your Christmases be white.