Why “White Christmas,” “Here Comes Santa Claus,” “Let It Snow,” and Other Classic Christmas Songs Come from the 1940s

Cast your mind back, if you will, to Christ­mas­time eighty years ago, and imag­ine which hol­i­day songs would have been in the air — or rather, which ones would­n’t have been. You cer­tain­ly would­n’t have heard the likes of “Jin­gle Bell Rock” or “Rockin’ Around the Christ­mas Tree,” rock-and-roll itself not yet hav­ing emerged in the form we know today. Even the thor­ough­ly un-rock­ing “Sil­ver Bells” would­n’t be record­ed until 1951, for the now-for­got­ten Bob Hope film The Lemon Drop Kid. What of chil­dren’s favorites like “Here Comes San­ta Claus,” “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Rein­deer,” and “Frosty the Snow­man”? None were pop­u­lar until Gene Autry laid them down in 1947, 1949, and 1950, respec­tive­ly.

Even “The Christ­mas Song,” whose most beloved ver­sion was record­ed by Nat King Cole, was­n’t writ­ten until 1945 (as was  “Let It Snow”). The year before that brought “Have Your­self a Mer­ry Lit­tle Christ­mas”; the year before that, “San­ta Claus Is Comin’ to Town” and “I’ll Be Home for Christ­mas.” That was record­ed first and most defin­i­tive­ly by Bing Cros­by, the singer most close­ly iden­ti­fied with the 1940s Christ­mas-music boom. That boom began, as the Ched­dar Explains video at the top of the post tells it, with Cros­by’s Christ­mas Day 1941 ren­di­tion of “White Christ­mas,” just weeks after the attack on Pearl Har­bor.

“It’s no coin­ci­dence that the boom in Christ­mas tunes came dur­ing World War II, when tens of thou­sands of Amer­i­can sol­diers were abroad defend­ing their coun­try, no doubt long­ing for the sim­ple warmth of home,” writes The Atlantic’s Eric Har­vey. “Irv­ing Berlin invest­ed ‘White Christ­mas’ with the sort of metero­log­i­cal long­ing that comes from liv­ing in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, but troops picked up on the sen­ti­ment, mak­ing the song a clas­sic in this regard.” This also hap­pened to be the zenith of the gold­en age of radio (a com­pi­la­tion of whose Christ­mas broad­casts we fea­tured last year here on Open Cul­ture). “By the 1940s, radios were a default pres­ence in most Amer­i­can homes. And by the late 1940s tele­vi­sion was grow­ing out of radio, and through the 1950s the pair set hol­i­day liv­ing rooms around the coun­try aglow with musi­cal per­for­mances.”

That most pop­u­lar Christ­mas songs still come from the 1940s and 50s (a Spo­ti­fy playlist of which you can find here) has giv­en rise to the­o­ries of a Baby-Boomer con­spir­a­cy to pre­serve their own child­hoods at all costs to the cul­ture. But then, as Christo­pher Ingra­ham writes in The Wash­ing­ton Post, “the post­war era real­ly was an excep­tion­al time in Amer­i­can his­to­ry: jobs were plen­ti­ful, the econ­o­my was boom­ing, and Amer­i­ca’s influ­ence on the world stage was at its peak.” Thus “what we now think of as the hol­i­day aes­thet­ic isn’t just about a par­tic­u­lar time of the year — it’s also very much about a par­tic­u­lar time of Amer­i­can his­to­ry.” This aligns with the per­cep­tion that Christ­mas has turned from a reli­gious hol­i­day into an Amer­i­can one. But take it from me, an Amer­i­can liv­ing in Korea: even on the oth­er side of the world, you can’t escape its songs.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

What Makes Music Sound Like Christ­mas Music? Hear the Sin­gle Most Christ­massy Chord of All Explained

Stream 48 Hours of Vin­tage Christ­mas Radio Broad­casts Fea­tur­ing Orson Welles, Bob Hope, Frank Sina­tra, Jim­my Stew­art, Ida Lupino & More (1930–1959)

David Bowie & Bing Cros­by Sing “The Lit­tle Drum­mer Boy” (1977)

Stream 22 Hours of Funky, Rock­ing & Swing­ing Christ­mas Albums: From James Brown and John­ny Cash to Christo­pher Lee & The Ven­tures

The Sto­ry of The Pogues’ “Fairy­tale of New York,” the Boozy Bal­lad That Has Become One of the Most Beloved Christ­mas Songs of All Time

Stream a Playlist of 79 Punk Rock Christ­mas Songs: The Ramones, The Damned, Bad Reli­gion & More

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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  • Walt says:


    Deck the Halls
    Good King Wences­las
    Angels We Have Heard on High
    Silent Night
    Hark the her­ald Angels Sing
    we Three Kings
    The First Noel
    O Tan­nen­baum
    O Lit­tle Town of Beth­le­hem
    Come All Ye Faith­ful
    O Holy Night
    The Twelve Days of Christ­mas
    Away in a manger
    Joy To the World
    What Child Is This
    Jin­gle Bells
    The Hol­ly and the Ivy

    And don’t for­get that San­ta Claus, Christ­mas Trees, and Christ­mas din­ner are all a con­spir­a­cy by Charles Dick­ens, Clement Moore, Queen Vic­to­ria, and Prince Albert to pre­serve their own tra­di­tions at all costs to the cul­ture.

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