Accounts vary as to when and where Berlin wrote the song. One story is that he wrote it in 1940, in warm La Quinta, California, while staying at the La Quinta Hotel, a frequent Hollywood retreat also favored by writer-director-producer Frank Capra, although the Arizona Biltmore also claims the song was written there. He often stayed up all night writing — he told his secretary, "Grab your pen and take down this song. I just wrote the best song I've ever written — heck, I just wrote the best song that anybody's ever written!"
The song initially performed poorly and was overshadowed by Holiday Inn's first hit song: "Be Careful, It's My Heart". By the end of October 1942, "White Christmas" topped the "Your Hit Parade" chart. It remained in that position until well into the new year. It has often been noted that the mix of melancholy — "just like the ones I used to know" — with comforting images of home — "where the treetops glisten" — resonated especially strongly with listeners during World War II. The Armed Forces Network was flooded with requests for the song. The recording is noted for Crosby's whistling during the second Chorus.
In 1942 alone, Crosby's recording spent eleven weeks on top of the Billboard charts. The original version also hit number one on the Harlem Hit Parade for three weeks, Crosby's first-ever appearance on the black-oriented chart. Re-released by Decca, the single returned to the #1 spot during the holiday seasons of 1945 and 1946 (on the chart dated January 4, 1947), thus becoming the only single with three separate runs at the top of the U.S. charts. The recording became a chart perennial, reappearing annually on the pop chart twenty separate times before Billboard magazine created a distinct Christmas chart for seasonal releases.
Following its prominence in the musicalHoliday Inn, the composition won the Academy Award for Best Original Song in 1942. In the film, Bing Crosby sings "White Christmas" as a duet with actress Marjorie Reynolds, though her voice was dubbed by Martha Mears. This now-familiar scene was not the moviemakers' initial plan. In the script as originally conceived, Reynolds, not Crosby, would sing the song. The song would feature in another Crosby film — the 1954 musical White Christmas — becoming the highest-grossing film of 1954.
The version most often heard today is not the original 1942 Crosby recording, as the master had become damaged due to frequent use. Crosby re-recorded the track on March 18, 1947, accompanied again by the Trotter Orchestra and the Darby Singers, with every effort made to reproduce the original recording session. There are subtle differences in the orchestration, most notably the addition of a celesta and flutes to brighten up the introduction.
Crosby dismissed his role in the song's success, saying later that "a jackdaw with a cleft palate could have sung it successfully." But Crosby was associated with it for the rest of his career.
Crosby's "White Christmas" single has been credited with selling 50 million copies, the most by any release and therefore it is the biggest-selling single worldwide of all time. The Guinness Book of World Records 2009 Edition lists the song as a 100-million seller, encompassing all versions of the song, including albums. Crosby's holiday collection Merry Christmas was first released as an LP in 1949, and has never been out of print since.
There has been confusion and debate on whether Crosby's record is or is not the best-selling single, due to a lack of information on sales of "White Christmas," because Crosby's recording was released before the advent of the modern-day US and UK singles charts. However, after careful research, Guinness World Records in 2007 concluded that, worldwide, Crosby's recording of "White Christmas" has, in their estimation, sold at least 50 million copies, and that Elton John's recording of "Candle in the Wind 1997" has sold 33 million, making Crosby's recording the best-selling single of all time. However, an update in the 2009 edition of the book decided to further help settle the controversy amicably by naming both John's and Crosby's songs to be "winners" by stating that John's recording is the "best-selling single since UK and US singles charts began in the 1950s," while maintaining that "the best-selling single of all time was released before the first pop charts," and that this distinction belongs to "White Christmas," which it says "was listed as the world's best-selling single in the first-ever Guinness Book of Records (published in 1955) and—remarkably—still retains the title more than 50 years later."
"White Christmas" is the most-recorded Christmas song; there have been more than 500 recorded versions of the song, in several different languages. The following is an incomplete list of some notable renditions.
Gordon Jenkins and his Orchestra (with Bob Carroll on lead vocal) released a version of the song (Capitol F-124) that reached number 16 on Billboard magazine's pop singles chart.
Charlie Spivak and his Orchestra (with Garry Stevens on lead vocal) released a version of the song that reached number 18 on Billboard magazine's pop singles chart.
Freddy Martin and his Orchestra (with Clyde Rogers on lead vocal) released a version of the song that reached number 20 on Billboard magazine's pop singles chart (this same version charted on the Billboard pop singles chart again in December 1945, reaching number 16).
Frank Sinatra released a version of the song (with backing orchestration under the direction of Axel Stordahl) that reached number 7 on Billboard magazine's pop singles chart (this same version charted on the Billboard pop singles chart two more times: in December 1945, reaching number 5, and in December 1946, reaching number 6).
On December 23, Kay Thompson performed her version of the song on the CBS radio program Request Performance backed by the Kay Thompson Rhythm Singers and an orchestra conducted by Leith Stevens. A recording of this radio performance has survived and can be heard on Sepia Records' 2009 3-CD compilation Think Pink! A Kay Thompson Party produced and annotated by Sam Irvin, author of Kay Thompson: From Funny Face to Eloise published by Simon & Schuster in 2010.
Jo Stafford (with backing vocals by the Lyn Murray Singers and backing orchestration by Paul Weston) released a version of the song that reached number 9 on Billboard magazine's pop singles chart.
Eddy Howard and his Orchestra released a version of the song that reached number 21 on Billboard magazine's pop singles chart.
Perry Como (with backing orchestration by Lloyd Shaffer) released a version of the song that reached number 23 on Billboard magazine's pop singles chart.
R&B vocal group The Ravens released a version of the song that reached number 9 on Billboard magazine's Rhythm & Blues Records chart in January 1949. Their version was released as the flip-side of a single that included their version of "Silent Night".
Mantovani and His Orchestra released a version of the song that reached number 23 on Billboard magazine's pop singles chart.
The Drifters released a cover version of the song that showcased the talents of lead singer Clyde McPhatter and the bass vocals of Bill Pinkney. Their recording of the song peaked at number 2 on Billboard's Rhythm & Blues Records chart in December 1954 (it also returned to the same chart in the next two years). In December 1955, "White Christmas" became the Drifters' first of 34 singles to register on the mainstream Billboard Top 100 singles chart, reaching number 80. For decades, the Drifters' version of the song was primarily heard on R&B radio stations, getting little exposure elsewhere. The song received a boost in the early 1990s, when it was prominently featured in the film Home Alone during a scene in which the lead character Kevin (Macaulay Culkin) is applying his father's aftershave while mouthing the lyrics. Radio stations formats as diverse as oldies, adult contemporary, Top 40, and country began playing the Drifters' version of the song, which was also featured in the 1994 films Mixed Nuts and The Santa Clause.
Mitch Miller included the song on his album Holiday Sing Along with Mitch. Instead of the lyrics, Miller printed a disclaimer on the album cover stating "The publisher assumes everyone knows the lyrics to this song!"
Haunani Kahalewai sang the song, including some lyrics in Hawaiian language, on the holiday album A Merry Hawaiian Christmas by the Hawaii Calls Orchestra and Chorus.
Before he emigrated to the USA, Italo-American tenor Sergio Franchi recorded an Italian-language version of the song titled "Bianco Natale." It was recorded in Italy and produced in Canada (Durium DC 26099).
Robert Goulet recorded the song for his holiday album, This Christmas I Spend with You.
Andy Williams recorded the song for his first holiday album, The Andy Williams Christmas Album. This version of "White Christmas" was also released as a single, and reached number 1 on Billboard's special, year-end, weekly Christmas Singles chart (the B-side of the single contained Williams's version of "The Christmas Song"). This same version of "White Christmas" charted again on Billboard's Christmas Singles chart again in 1967, reaching number 22.
Keith Lamb recorded a reggae version of the song with his band Hush in December 1972 (EPW 263) for Warner for an EP entitled Hush Power.
Shu-Bi-Dua, from Denmark, released a rock version of the song under the title "Rap Jul" ("Quack Christmas") with Danish lyrics depicting a duck (that turns out to be none other than Donald Duck) not looking forward to Christmas, because all humans tend to eat duck at Christmas Eve.
John Denver recorded the song during the sessions for his holiday album, Rocky Mountain Christmas. While the song was not included on the original LP, it later appeared as a bonus track on the 1998 CD reissue of the album.
Stiff Little Fingers covered the song and released it as part of the "Silly Encores" B-side to their UK 7" single "At the Edge". This version also appeared as a bonus track on the American 2005 CD reissue of the band's 1980 live album, Hanx!
Garth Brooks covered the song for his first holiday album, Beyond the Season. This version of the song reached number 70 on Billboard's Hot Country Singles & Tracks chart in January 1995.
Shu-Bi-Dua, from Denmark, this time under the pseudonym "Shu-Bi-40" (parodying British based reggae-band UB 40), recorded a Christmas album containing reggae versions of well-known Christmas songs including "White Christmas", making it their second cover version of the song (see also 1973).
Michie Tomizawa (as Sailor Mars) covered the song on the holiday album Sailor Bishoujo Senshi Sailor Moon SuperS: Christmas For You
Martina McBride covered the song for her holiday album, White Christmas. This version of the song charted twice, reaching number 75 on Billboard's Hot Country Singles & Tracks chart in December 1999, and number 62 on the same chart in December 2000.
Boy George recorded a cover of the song that was released as a single in digital download format.
Marco Mengoni recorded a cover of the song for the compilation album X Factor - The Christmas Album. Despite not being released as a single, the song charted at number 13 on the Italian Singles Chart, based on digital downloads of the track.
^ abcdeRoy J. Harris, Jr. (December 5, 2009). "The Best-Selling Record of All. 'White Christmas' and the reasons it endures". Wall Street Journal. Retrieved 2009-12-06. It was a peaceful song that became a wartime classic. Its unorthodox, melancholy melody, and mere 54 words, expressing the simple yearning for a return to happier times—sounded instantly familiar when sung by America's favorite crooner. But 67 years after its introduction, some still are surprised to learn that Bing Crosby's recording of the Irving Berlin ballad "White Christmas" became not only the runaway smash-hit for the World War II holidays, but the best-selling record of all time.
^Guinness Book of Records 2009 states that "Candle in the Wind 1997" is the "best-selling single since charts began"; however, not of all time. Bing Crosby's "White Christmas" is still recognized as the best selling single of all time, but since it was released prior to the start of many charts, its sales prior to the 1950s are estimated. John's 1997 song has sold the most copies when looking at copies sold since charts began, as verified in Guinness World Records. ISBN1-904994-37-7. See also: Guinness Book of Records, 2009 Edition, pages 14, 15 & 169