Connecting Christmas Music and Dreidels: Irving Berlin and White Christmas

As I was saying.

Having torn the calendar page of the American Thanksgiving holiday, the Christmas Holiday Season begins in all its fierce glory. Oh! Can you hear it?!? The sound of cash registers beeping, with a counterpoint of bell ringers for the Salvation Army hoping for a bit of the sale’s leftover change? Lovely. Music to our ears to be sure.

Speaking of music, there are many songs of this season that have become nearly, well, anthems of the holidays, particularly of the Christmas Holiday. I have been known to listen to, and perform them, myself. During December I’d like to talk just a bit about a few of them, and those scribes who invented them, since their origins are rather interesting. How many of you knew that these songs were often composed by artists who were not, actually, Christian? Read on.

White Christmas

This song is perhaps the anthem of the holiday, at least one that was written as a popular tune and not as a hymn. Made famous by the singer Bing Crosby, it has sold more single recordings than any other song. Ever. More than 50 million copies. Maybe as high as 100 million. The writer? A dizzyingly talented fellow named Irving Berlin, bornĀ Israel Isidore Baline, a Russian Jewish immigrant who came here as a little child with his family in 1893 to escape persecution in Russia. He was already famous as the author of many popular songs when he penned White Christmas. But, there is a story that Irving Berlin claimed “it’s the best song I ever wrote, maybe the best song anybody ever wrote.” It was certainly very, very popular, in large measure due to its release by the great Crosby and the fact that WWII was underway. Yet, Irving’s story is one of survival, talent, and determination. How else could it be that he would have ever been in the position to write White Christmas, get it performed by the most popular singer of the day, when he himself could not even read or write music, and could barely play the piano, and then in only a single key?

Firstly, I will announce that I am totally indebted to the wonderful book As Thousands Cheer, the Life of Irving Berlin, written by Laurence Bergreen, author, for much of what follows. It’s a good book. Get it and read it.

Irving Berlin grew up on the streets of New York City’s lower east side, a land of immigrants and crowded tenement dwellings. From a young age he spent most of his time on the streets since there was nearly no room in the small apartment. Their home was on the 3rd floor of a brownstone house originally designed as a single home, now partitioned into many small dwelling units. His family, 8 in all – mother, father, 4 girls and 2 boys – shared but 3 rooms. And, they took in a renter to help save money! Can you imagine it? Nine people living day and night crammed into a trio of small spaces in a smelly, unsanitary fire-trap of a building. No wonder he lived on the streets. It was that, or the roof.

His family was desperately poor as were most all living on the lower east side. One event which left a lasting impression on young Israel was that of seeing for the first time a Christmas tree, that of his poor Irish neighbors in the tenement. He never forgot how beautiful their tree seemed, even though later in life he came to realize that they obviously had to find the cheapest, smallest, most broken tree. It didn’t matter at the time. He later wrote “…that first tree seemed to tower to heaven.”

When Izzy (as he was known then) was 13 years old, his father died. He’d already lost a sister, now his father, and the family was worse off than they had been upon arriving eight years past. Finally, the next year, Izzy left home to live on the streets. He was small, had no real skills beyond being able to hawk newspapers. No real skills save one: his father had been a cantor in the synagogue, the person who sings religious music and leads prayers. From him young Izzy had learned a little about singing, and about music. He couldn’t read or write music; didn’t play an instrument. He sang, and learned songs by memory.

He began his career as a boy by singing popular songs of the time for a few pennies in booze joints and gin mills in the dangerous section of New York called the Bowery. The rough-neck sailors, dock-hands, laborers and others might throw him a penny, or they might throw him out. He stuck with it. He briefly had a position singing in the chorus of a new musical, but was let go. He then briefly landed employement plugging songs for publishers at music hall shows. This meant that during the show he’d be in the audience, pretending to be a regular customer while actually being paid to be there. When a song ended, he was supposed to clap like mad and insist that the song be sung again. Maybe he’d sing along and get the rest of the audience to, also. A bit of early advertising, right? At any rate, he had jobs, lost them, continued to sing in the whiskey joints of the dark underbelly of New York.

Within another year, Izzy landed a job as a singing waiter in a “cafe” in Chinatown. Really, it was just another seedy establishment visited by gangsters, and by wealthy uptown residents out for an evening of “slumming.” Izzy would sing for tips, and also wait on the customers. One day a relative of the King of England came to the tavern while taking a tour of the seedier side of New York. Izzy and the pianist played and sang for them. Izzy got his name in the paper. The owner of the tavern then suggested, mainly for promotion, that Izzy and the piano player write a song. Izzy was known for being able to make up funny versions of popular songs on the spot, could he write a real song? Marie of Sunny Italy was the result. It was okay, not great. But, most importantly, the name of the lyricist was not Israel Baline, nor Izzy. It was Irving Berlin. He was 19 years old.

And, a legend was born.