Just after midnight on December 25, 1914, British, French and Russian troops at European battle fronts were stunned as German joyeauxtroops ceased firing and began to sing Christmas carols — in some cases, even backed up by oompah bands.

World War I had begun five months earlier and would continue for another devastating four years. This spontaneous Christmas truce continued through the night and into daylight when many of the German soldiers emerged from their trenches and called out “Merry Christmas” in their enemies’ native tongues. Finally, Allied soldiers, seeing that the Germans were unarmed, climbed out of their trenches as well. Men from both sides ventured through the so-called No Man’s Land to shake hands with the enemy. The men exchanged small presents and sang carols and songs. In one case, soldiers played an international soccer game.

It was, of course, short-lived as both sides went back to their business of killing each other.  (This true story is told in the 2005 French film Joyeux Noel.)

On Christmas Day in 1941 Bing Crosby introduced a new Christmas song on his weekly NBC radio program. The song, written by Jewish composer and lyricist Irving Berlin, went on to become the gold standard of Christmas music — the top-selling Christmas single ever and the top-selling single of any kind for another 55 years.

The success of “White Christmas” came as no surprise to Berlin, who was already a musical legend. He modestly called it “the best song I ever wrote…the best song anybody ever wrote.” Although Berlin did not celebrate Christmas, it was a day that did hold special meaning to him: his infant son died on December 25, 1928. That perhaps explains some of the ambiguous emotional strength of the song.

 

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