On Christmas Day 1941, the Seattle Daily Times chronicled a city full of contrasts—namely “gaily decorated Christmas trees and grimly ready anti-aircraft guns.” Like the rest of the nation, Seattle still reeled from Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor just 18 days earlier. Suddenly, this became our first wartime Christmas in a decade.
That same day, at Radio City in Hollywood, a Tacoma-born, Spokane-raised celebrity took to NBC’s airwaves and unwittingly made history.
Bing Crosby was already known for Christmas music; he sang “Adeste Fideles” and “Silent Night” every year on the yuletide broadcast of his radio show, Kraft Music Hall. For the 1941 holiday, he promised the nation “a new Irving Berlin song about Christmas.”
This week marks 80 years since Crosby first serenaded the country with “White Christmas,” Berlin’s yearning tribute to nostalgia and glistening treetops and sleigh bells in the snow. When Crosby sang about a holiday “just like the ones I used to know,” he could have pictured his years growing up in Spokane and attending Gonzaga High School, then University, barely a block from his family home.
“White Christmas” went on to win an Academy Award for best song; 80 years later it remains the best-selling single of all time. When Berlin first previewed it for his longtime musical arranger, he told her, “Not only is it the best song I ever wrote, it’s the best song anybody ever wrote.”
But on Christmas of 1941, pretty much nobody noticed. Reviews of that night’s show didn’t even mention the tune; no recording of that session survives.
Just weeks before, Crosby had performed this song on the set of an Irving Berlin movie musical, Holiday Inn. The film wouldn’t come out until the following summer, but he secured the famed composer’s permission to preview the tune on Kraft Music Hall.
Berlin tuned into the song’s first-ever broadcast from his home in New York, nervous about how the public would receive his latest creation. Crosby biographer Gary Giddins recounts that Berlin “knew he was treading on dangerous ground removing Christ from Christmas and advancing snow as the essential metaphor in a requiem of longing.” He reportedly even snuck onto the set of Holiday Inn and squatted behind some soundproofing partitions to observe Crosby performing the song before the cameras.
According to Jody Rosen’s book White Christmas, Berlin and the studios didn’t plan to promote the tune until the holiday season. And yet by October 31, after the release of Holiday Inn, Crosby’s recording topped the Billboard charts. Sure, the tempo was a little faster than the version Crosby first crooned over the Christmas Day airwaves. But the real change was in our country.
If “White Christmas” had come out even a few years earlier, says history professor Ray Rast, “it might have just come and gone.”
Rast teaches a course in public history at Gonzaga University. Over two academic years, his students compiled a digital history exhibit that examines Crosby and Berlin’s role in recasting how America views Christmas. The first time Crosby sang it, “it was a little too early to resonate,” says Rast.
In the summer of 1942, Americans were stationed in Europe or the Pacific, while others at home reorganized their lives around wartime production. By the time Crosby’s song came out, says Rast, “They’re projecting to the sadness they’re going to feel in the coming Christmas.” According to the Gonzaga digital exhibit, Armed Forces Radio played the song so often that Crosby recorded “a special V-Disc version for those on the front lines.”
Stripped of its original intro, a verse about celebrating Christmas in sunny Beverly Hills, White Christmas became a song about longing for security and peace and faraway loved ones. It also nudged America’s Christmas observance into more secular territory: More “may your days be merry and bright” than “Round yon virgin mother and child.”
The tune has since been covered by everyone from Meghan Trainor to the Flaming Lips. Today Crosby’s gold record resides in his childhood home in Spokane, now owned by Gonzaga and home to the university’s archives and special collections.
Crosby kept relatively close ties with his alma mater, says special collections librarian Stephanie Plowman. He arranged for Gonzaga University to hold production rights on a 1957 TV special—a clever way to help the school raise funds for a library. In 1981, the university dedicated a statue of Crosby outside that building, now a student center.
The bronze Crosby looks much as he did back when he first sang “White Christmas” on Kraft Music Hall: handsome face; stick-out ears; drapey suit and fedora; the general sense he’d rather be on a golf course. Just like in Holiday Inn, he has a pipe perpetually clenched between his teeth. Pranksters kept stealing the smoking implement from off the statue, so the university commissioned a removable bronze replacement that screws in. Forman has three of these in her care: “For special functions, we put in a pipe.”