Berlin knew he had something special with “White Christmas” as soon as he wrote it. He supposedly enthused to his secretary, “I just wrote the best song I’ve ever written — heck, I just wrote the best song that anybody’s ever written!” The song evokes the warmth of the hearth and the comforts of our Christmas traditions in a way that hasn’t stopped pulling at heartstrings yet.
Whereas Berlin’s composition has proved its enduring appeal across more than half a century, Justin Bieber’s or Cee Lo Green’s latest holiday numbers probably won’t. In an essay in The New Republic, Jonathan Fischer asks what has become of the golden age of pop Christmas songs between the 1930s and 1950s that gave us not only “White Christmas,” but also “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” “The Christmas Song,” and such lesser standards as “Silver Bells,” “Santa Baby,” and “Frosty the Snowman.”
Well, the writing was better, the standards higher, the culture more charming and less abased. But Fischer notes something else — Christmas meant more. “As the religious purpose of Christmas has gotten increasingly remote,” he writes, “pop songwriters seem to have less to say about it,” and “a traditional and sentimental version of Christmas . . . doesn’t appeal to the wider, more fractured popular culture the way it once did.”