The movie is less known today than it might be, perhaps because of Crosby’s blackface-and-dialect number in celebration of Lincoln’s birthday in the February sequence, perhaps because it wasn’t terribly good, and perhaps because the song’s unexpected success — millions of singles sold, an Academy Award for Berlin — prompted Paramount to release a musical starring Crosby, Danny Kaye, and Rosemary Clooney. White Christmas was the top-grossing film of 1954 and focused on war buddies putting on a heckuva Christmas show in Vermont, leaving out all the extraneous Independence-Day-and-Thanksgiving-type songs. ("Abraham" makes an appearance, as an instrumental only.)

A Belarusian Jew named "Israel" might not seem the most likely person to write the great American Christmas carol. But Israel Isidore Baline, the greatest songwriter of the dying days of Tin Pan Alley, had a brainwave one winter day at a spa in Phoenix, and wrote the best-selling song of the first hundred years of recorded music. Baline, working under his adopted name of Irving Berlin, excised the somewhat sardonic framing narrative of the song, about a California millionaire wishing for the snowy Christmases of his youth, and things took off from there. Fred Astaire, to whom he presented the song, liked it, but it ended up sung by Bing Crosby in the Crosby/Astaire film Holiday Inn. Although the hotel chain took its name from the movie, "White Christmas" was Holiday Inn‘s true legacy.

The movie is less known today than it might be, perhaps because of Crosby’s blackface-and-dialect number in celebration of Lincoln’s birthday in the February sequence, perhaps because it wasn’t terribly good, and perhaps because the song’s unexpected success — millions of singles sold, an Academy Award for Berlin — prompted Paramount to release a musical starring Crosby, Danny Kaye, and Rosemary Clooney. White Christmas was the top-grossing film of 1954 and focused on war buddies putting on a heckuva Christmas show in Vermont, leaving out all the extraneous Independence-Day-and-Thanksgiving-type songs. ("Abraham" makes an appearance, as an instrumental only.) Chromatic Christmases entered the vocabulary. Country great Ernest Tubb feared a blue Christmas without you, and the song was later covered by musicians as varied as Elvis Presley, Porky Pig imitators ("Seymour Swine" for legal reasons), and the magnificent slowcore combo Low. When copywriters want to talk about environmentalists, they offer us a green Christmas; dancehall enthusiasts can celebrate a yellow Christmas; the Pink Panther (the animated cat, not Peter Sellers or the diamond he chased after) hungered after a pink Christmas. And, of course, the modern slasher film was celebrated over winter break at a sorority house that had a very black Christmas.

Part of the reason for Berlin’s song’s success is that so many of us don’t experience a white Christmas; poolside in Arizona is not condusive to the sound of sleigh bells in the snow. But from the early days of modern Christmas celebrations, that’s been the case. Christmas is a solstice celebration, of course, and one of the most powerful forces behind the fraught transformation of Christmas from a Dionysian revel to a family-friendly holiday was Charles Dickens. A Christmas Carol‘s Christmas — from Christmas goose to "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen" to the snow-covered cobblestone streets — helped cement the Victorian traditions for the holiday, which in turn have become the ones celebrated in modern America. But Dickensian London, much like London today, was unlikely to find even a flake on the ground on Christmas Day. Dickens, however, had come of age during the last local minimum of the Little Ice Age, and his childhood had featured some of last truly snowy Christmases in English history. (The final Thames Frost Fair ever held occured when he was 2.) Christmas is here: mix the punch, drag out the Dickens (even though the prospect sickens). And when we look out into the streets, even if (as Berlin put it in his struck first verse) "The sun is shining / The grass is green / The orange and palm trees sway", we’ll be looking for a Christmas just like the one of the eighteen-teens, the one Boz used to know.