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Tom Purcell: A Christmas Dream Inspired by Irving Berlin and Bing Crosby

(BingCrosbyLegacy video)

I dream of “White Christmas” this year.

I speak of the Irving Berlin classic made famous by Bing Crosby — a sweet, wistful song that holds more power over me with each passing year.

According to CBS News, many speculate that Berlin was inspired to write the song in the late 1930s, while working on a movie in Beverly Hills and feeling homesick for his family in New York.

The holiday season was especially challenging for him. His 3-week-old son had died on Christmas 1928. Berlin visited his grave every Christmas, and the sadness of his son’s death also influenced the song.

Berlin had set the half-finished song aside for a few years before finishing it during the Christmas season of 1940 or 1941.

Only 54 words, it would become a quintessentially American song — one that, to me, celebrates the American civility, prosperity and opportunity that Berlin was blessed to experience.

According to PBS.org, Berlin’s family fled to America from Russia when he was 5 to escape persecution of Jews.

His family “arrived in New York in 1893, settling in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Compelled by poverty to work rather than attending school, Berlin made money by singing on street corners and later secured a job as a singing waiter at the Pelham Café. During this time, he also began writing songs of his own ... .”

Berlin would go on to produce “an outpouring of ballads, dance numbers, novelty tunes and love songs that defined American popular song for much of the (20th) century,” says the Songwriters Hall of Fame.

“Irving Berlin has no place in American music — he is American music,” composer Jerome Kern said.

In any event, “White Christmas” offers a blend of melancholy and hopefulness, expressing a longing for snow-blanketed Christmases when “treetops glisten and children listen to hear sleigh bells in the snow” and hope that our days will be “merry and bright.”

The song premiered on Crosby’s radio show in December 1941, just 18 days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, a highly emotional time for America. Eight months later, Crosby was featured singing the song in the movie Holiday Inn.

However, critics “didn’t take much notice” of the song at first, according to Jody Rosen, author of White Christmas: the Story of an American Song.

She told CBS News that it wasn't until Armed Forces Radio began to play the song that it struck a chord.

“It was 1942, the first winter that American troops had spent overseas,” she said. “So, these images of ... snowy American, New Englandy Christmas really spoke to the longing, nostalgia and homesickness of the troops for their homeland and for the sweethearts and wives and mothers and fathers they’d left behind.”

And it spoke to a common longing for the civility, unity, sacrifice and hopefulness that all Americans were experiencing at that time.

Well, “White Christmas” is just as relevant now as it ever was — maybe more so.

Its sweet, wistful melody and lyrics make me long for renewed civility, unity, sacrifice and hopefulness — the same things, I believe, all Americans are longing for.

“We are not enemies, but friends,” President Abraham Lincoln said in his first inaugural address, whose message still resonates in 2017.

“We must not be enemies,” Lincoln said. “Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

Civility, unity, sacrifice and hopefulness — a great coming together.

That’s what I dream of for Christmas this year.

Tom Purcell, author of Misadventures of a 1970s Childhood and Wicked Is the Whiskey: A Sean McClanahan Mystery, is a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review humor columnist, syndicated by Cagle Cartoons. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter: @PurcellTom. Click here for previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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