“I’m dreaming of a White Christmas
Just like the ones I used to know”
Rumor has it that Irving Berlin claimed “White Christmas” was the best song he had ever written. This is wrong on many, many levels. Don’t let Bing’s eyes-straight-to camera, Mr. Urbane demeanor confuse you – even the briefest glance at the lyrics reveal them for the toss away they are – and I love, LOVE Irving Berlin. The sentiment of the song is not even deep enough for a Christmas card and Irving repeats the verses. As a fellow non-Christian I feel his issue. First off, there is the location where he wrote the song, La Quinta, California, that snowy paradise of southern California. Instead, a listener might guess that the lyricist tapped into his childhood to draw upon the imagery. Well unless the Lower East Side of NYC at the turn of the 20th century had some tinseled, gift swamped, Christmas-treed parlors I have not read about, it did not come from here. But Irving is determined to give it a shot – the opening line (“I’m dreaming of a…”) is a testament to just how hard he is trying to get there and maybe, just maybe the first use of neurolinguistics in song lyrics.
Irving Berlin is the master songwriter – why did his lyrical skills abandon him in this particular case? A writer, especially a great songwriter, can place himself in an infinite number of situations, create a dizzying array of characters, breathe romance and light into myriad situations, and basically inhabit most all the spaces in the human head. Irving did all this with ease and dazzling skill. Yet he could not summon his rhetorical skills to capture the essence of the holiday. As a child he may have heard of Christmas, but I’m guessing Santa did not make an appearance. Not to be crass about it, but if a non-Jewish writer was to sing about the joys of Shabbat dinner, you might find it a bit thin. My take is that he is writing from the outside looking in and Christmas, so I’ve heard, is about the inside looking out. Even “Winter Wonderland” paints a more vivid, believable picture, complete with details and the internal thinking that shows how the writer really lived it, or at least lived next door. Irving Berlin, for all his extraordinary powers and skill, could not summon the most American of memories, the family Christmas. He needed to write a Christmas song – they could be cash cows back then (still are now as well), so he did what he knew – wrote the song as a professional songwriter. It’s hummable, light and Crosby kills it, but the song means little. Yet it speaks to the songwriter’s mastery that “White Christmas,” in the end, seems to have fooled even the great Irving Berlin. // Dan Miller