There’s no doubt the war felt harder around the holidays. Not only were people missing their loved ones, but there were shortages of many materials so everyone had to get creative. Handmade gifts were big, and children’s toys were often made out of paper and wood instead of plastic and metal.
However, stuff wasn’t always what meant the most. According to the History Channel, receiving mail from home was deeply stirring to the servicepeople overseas. Anything that brought home a little closer, whether it was a letter, a photo, or anything else familiar was devoured like a good steak and lobster dinner.
Equally devoured was good music, and when it came to the holidays, durable standards such as “Adeste Fidelis” and “Faith of Our Fathers” always rang true, but the war also produced its own classic Christmas songs. Since “During World War Two” focuses on Hollywood, all of our choices are either from movies or are movie-adjacent.
So here we go, and there’s definitely a theme at play here. There’s also a lot of Bing Crosby, not that there’s anything wrong with that. Anywhoo…
White Christmas (Irving Berlin, 1942)
Probably the single most famous song of the war and the biggest-selling song of all time, writer Irving Berlin first came up with the melody of “White Christmas” in 1935, and the original version had a verse:
The sun is shining, the grass is green
The orange and palm trees sway
There’s never been such a day
In Beverly Hills, LA
But it’s December the 24th
And I’m longing to be up north
For obvious reasons the verse has never been performed, most people have never heard it, and certainly no one misses it.
While “White Christmas” has been covered countless times (including a rendition by Elvis Presley, who Berlin never cared for), Bing Crosby is most associated with the song, having first sung it right after Pearl Harbor, then in 1942’s Holiday Inn and in White Christmas twelve years later. He also sang it live on numerous occasions, including one emotional USO performance in front of 100,000 GIs in 1944, when Crosby found himself getting choked up.
I’ll Be Home For Christmas (Kim Gannon and Walter Kent, 1943)
Another huge song from the war, “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” was also introduced by Bing Crosby, who recorded it on October 1, 1943. While the full version was never heard in a movie during the war, the first phrase of the melody was used as a theme for Jane and Bill’s doomed romance in the 1944 film, Since You Went Away.
Amazingly enough, the song was banned by the BBC for being too sappy, saying it violated its “policy of excluding sickly sentimentality which, particularly when sung by certain vocalists, can become nauseating and not at all in keeping with what we feel to be the need of the public in this country in the fourth year of war.”
Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas (Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane, 1944)
The history of “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” seems dour from the get-go. Composer Hugh Martin wrote the melody first, liked it, but threw it out because he thought it was unusable. Then his songwriting partner Ralph Blane made him fish it out of the wastebasket so it could be used in their upcoming film, Meet Me In St. Louis, initially marrying the melody with these cheerful pronouncements:
Have yourself a merry little Christmas
It may be your last
Next year we may all be living in the past
Have yourself a merry little Christmas
Pop that champagne cork
Next year we may all be living in New York
No good times like the olden days
Happy golden days of yore
Faithful friends who were dear to us
Will be near to us no more
But at least we all will be together
If the Lord allows
From now on, we’ll have to muddle through somehow
So have yourself a merry little Christmas now
Fortunately for everyone involved, Judy Garland asked Blaine and Martin to change the lyrics because they were way too depressing, and the result is heard today in the film. Unfortunately for everyone since, in 1957 Frank Sinatra had the lyrics changed again to include the line, “Hang a shining star upon the highest bow,” which diluted some of the song’s wistful poignancy. Still, the song remains a classic.
Empty Chair At the Christmas Table (Bob Wills, 1945)
While “Empty Chair” was never heard in a film, its singer, Bob Wills made fourteen westerns in addition to being a highly influential country musician and bandleader. While Wills was drafted into the Army, the powers that were thought it was more important to press Bob into traveling around the United States selling bonds instead of sending him into combat.
Let’s Start the New Year Right (Irving Berlin, 1942)
Our second Berlin song from Holiday Inn and our third with Der Bingel, “Let’s Start the New Year Right” is still wistful but vastly more hopeful, looking forward to better days ahead, which must have meant a lot after the turbulent year that was 1942. The song wasn’t released as part of the Holiday Inn soundtrack until 1979, which has probably kept it from being as popular as it should be, but it’s a pleasant, lilting tune that gently invites “Auld Lang Syne” to move over just a wee bit.
While these songs may not have been the most cheerful of holiday fare, they were very honest about what the soldiers and their families were feeling during the war and must have provided a wonderful release, which is why they still hold up eighty years later.
Coming up in January (click on the images for more info):
All right, that’s my last post for this year and I’m off for my break. Well, at least my break on Taking Up Room, because I’ll still be posting on my Substack page (Have you stopped by yet? It’s fun.) Anyway, I hope everyone has a great holiday season! See you on January fourth with a new Stage To Screen…
Holiday Inn (DVD and Blu-ray), Since You Went Away (DVD and Blu-ray), and Meet Me In St. Louis (DVD and Blu-ray) are available to own from Amazon.
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