According to The Bing Crosby Internet Museum, Irving Berlin was tasked with writing a song for each major holiday for the movie “Holiday Inn.” He struggled most with the Christmas song because he was Jewish. Still, he drew upon his experiences of Christmastime in New York and California, and ended up writing one of the first secular Christmas songs.
“The whole idea of secular Christmas songs really didn’t exist before Berlin,” composer and pianist Rob Kapilow said during an appearance on PBS News Hour. “Composers and publishers thought, ‘Why write a Christmas song? They will only play it once a year.’ But, in fact, the success of this actually launched a whole genre of secular Christmas songs.”
Another aspect of the song’s power was its timing. According to The Wall Street Journal, Bing Crosby first performed the song publicly on his national radio show on Christmas Eve in 1941, a few weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor. The recording was released the next year. It was full of nostalgia and yearning at a time when many members of the United States armed forces were away from home for Christmas for the first time. “The song and the movie [came] out just when the Americans [were] spending their first winter away from home,” Kapilow said. “And, suddenly, that nostalgic tug of Christmases past, of that mythic American past, for all the Americans overseas, as well as their families at home missing them, suddenly made the song immensely popular in a way that Berlin never anticipated.”