I expect INPUT here! We need to vote and decide once and for all if the ultimate American Christmas song is a white man singing about snow and homesickness, or a hippy woman singing about longing and guilt and regrets.
You know what strikes me? Both these songs are really REALLY sad! And the third one I considered, Nat King Cole’s “The Christmas Song”, is also sad!!!! So I guess this is the true meaning of Christmas, the one people respond to, that it brings up a feeling of loss and sorrow and memories and nostalgia. Not so much the “rah rah, joy and Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” feeling, more the “may all your days be merry and bright, and may all your Christmases be white” feeling. Oh, that’s the other thing! Both these songs are thinking about other people, Bing is wishing that everyone else at least can always have a white Christmas even though his Christmas is sad this year. And Joni is feeling bad for the people she has hurt.
Anyway, gut feeling, which song is more important to you?
Bing Crosby and “White Christmas”. It was first song on a radio show on Christmas 1941, three weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor. It was the first Christmas song to hit that chord of secular nostalgia in America. Written by a Jewish American man who had spent his life knowing Christmas as a secular Holiday, lights and trees and carols and family, not Jesus and church. It came out at just the right time to hit that note for the American public, giving them something to hold on to through all the darkest times of WWII. It wasn’t a hit immediately, but as the years went by, the Armed Forces Radio Network was flooded with requests for it every year at Christmas. And Bing’s nephew remembers his uncle saying, “I once asked Uncle Bing about the most difficult thing he ever had to do during his entertainment career… He said in December, 1944, he was in a USO show with Bob Hope and the Andrews Sisters. They did an outdoor show in northern France… he had to stand there and sing ‘White Christmas’ with 100,000 G.I.s in tears without breaking down himself. Of course, a lot of those boys were killed in the Battle of the Bulge a few days later.”
And then there’s Joni Mitchell and “River”. “White Christmas” is about a huge National moment, Pearl Harbor and what it brought to America. “River” is intensely personal. Joni Mitchell broke up with Graham Nash and a year later had just started a relationship with James Taylor and went to visit his family home in small town North Carolina. She wrote this song about the confused feelings of guilt and regret from the break up, brought up by the Christmas ceremonies. It speaks to any personal guilt and grief and regret anyone might feel at the holiday time. While “White Christmas” is about wanting to escape to Christmas, to your happy memories and away from the nightmare you are in, “River” is about wanting to escape FROM Christmas, from all the sad memories and guilt and feelings it drags out of you that you thought you had forgotten. Woven through the background is a piano refrain of “Jingle Bells”, giving that sense of Christmas as an ever present background to your pain.
Okay, PICK ONE!!!!
It’s really close, but personally I have to go for “White Christmas”. It’s a family favorite, we grew up with Bing singing it on one of our three Christmas records. More importantly, the White Christmas movie is a family favorite. It’s a big sappy silly film, yes, but it starts in Italy in 1944, and my Mom’s Dad was in Italy in 1944, so that feeling of all the lonely soldier boys dreaming of “White Christmas” really works on us. Meanwhile, “River” I didn’t hear until I had grown up. And I think maybe I’m not old enough to get Joni Mitchell yet? Give me another 20 years of life and regret.