Why 'White Christmas' Is Actually a California Song
Many people don’t realize it, but Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” – the most recorded holiday song of all time, because it’s also the most recorded song of all time – is written from the point of view of a Californian. The part of the song that we all know is the chorus; the verse, which sets it up, goes like this:
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….
I’m dreaming of a white Christmas…
Etc. etc. This makes a lot of sense. For a child like me growing up in the upper Midwest, singing “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas” was much like saying “I’m dreaming of a peanut butter sandwich in my lunchbox.” You might welcome it, but whether you did or not you were pretty certain that nine times out of ten that's what you were going to get.
But the verse isn’t heard very often, and when it is it’s frequently performed by someone steeped in twentieth-century popular song. Someone like Arne Fogel, whom I interviewed recently for a story I did about “White Christmas” for The California Report. Fogel’s a singer and broadcaster; he's also something of an expert on Bing Crosby, and he’s hosting a special about the crooner's Christmas recordings for Sirius XM.
“Crosby didn't sing the verse until a TV show in the late 1960s, which I remember watching," Fogel says. "And he starts singing, 'The sun is shining, the grass is green, the orange and palm trees sway...', and I didn't know what the heck he was singing about. This is Christmastime, why is he singing about these palm trees? Then he suddenly goes into White Christmas, and I thought, that's interesting, I never heard that before.”
Here's that 1968 performance.
Slate music critic Jody Rosen wrote a book about White Christmas in 2002. His research indicates that Irving Berlin may have been working on the song as early as 1938, and with a very different concept in mind. "It is difficult to imagine the 'White Christmas' we know today as a showstopper in a revue filled with dog tricks and pratfalls," Rosen writes, but that's where Berlin was going with it: a satire on Hollywood types lolling around a pool, pretending to a nostalgia they didn't really feel.
But the cynical mood that prevailed in 1938 was gone by 1942, when the song was heard by GIs getting ready to ship out and the families whom they were leaving behind. Arne Fogel says, "All that context of 'the sun is shining here in Beverly Hills' has absolutely no resonance for them. (For the GIs) the song has meaning, because here I am, fighting this war for our way of life, and I wish I was back home the way it was when I was a kid. That's why the song really took off. Because it became not just a Christmas carol, it became an American anthem."
Gregory Rodriguez has a modern take on the dislocation implicit in "White Christmas." Rodriguez is the founding director for the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. He wrote about the song for the Los Angeles Times last year. Whereas the original audience for "White Christmas" was longing from a European battlefield for "the ones they used to know," Rodriguez points out that today's wistful listener may be from Sunnyvale, recalling those snows of yesteryear from a cubicle.
"The American story is a story of migration, and the California story is the American story on steroids," he says. "It's the flip side of this great triumphant story of movement, and particularly in California, I think, it speaks to people who may be missing people back home. I think the song really speaks to that tension, but the first bars seem to land on the side of 'I'm happy that I moved away.'"
But don't feel the song only offers a choice between Beverly Hills and Everytown, USA. After the story aired on The California Report, listener Laura Turiano wrote to say she used to perform "White Christmas" with an East Bay vocal group. "That first verse seemed way too specific even for us to sing here," she wrote. So they changed the lyrics to...
The sun is shining
The grass is green
The redwoods and oak trees sway
There's never been such a day,
Here in Oakland, CA