Just a few weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Bing Crosby publicly broadcast “White Christmas” for the first time. After playing the track on his radio show, it became an immediate symbol of a simpler, safer time — an emblem of Christmas that may or may not have ever existed but one that many of us, even now, desperately cling to.
Composed by Irving Berlin in 1941 and recorded by Crosby in an 18-minute session, “White Christmas” was part of a broader trend in the so-called golden era of songwriting, when prosaic topics were treated perspicuously and rendered into plainly expressed refrains. There’s hardly a simpler sentiment than wishing someone a Merry Christmas — a bright Christmas, a white Christmas — and it’s one that has been repeated a record-breaking number of times. According to Guinness World Records, “White Christmas” is not only the best-selling single in history but also one of the most covered. Everyone from Dean Martin to Meghan Trainor has taken a swing at it. Sure, there’s a sadder resonance to the more recent interpretations — every year, as temperatures rise, we stray a little further from Crosby’s wish for a white Christmas — but there’s something sweet about our sheer stubbornness to need something so simple. Out of the thousands who’ve attempted to put their name on “White Christmas,” here are the ten who’ve sung that simplicity best.
While others were dabbling with bananas and yeast during the pandemic, Norah Jones was making a Christmas album. Stuck in her home, envisioning a fantasy of togetherness, her cover of “White Christmas” is imbued with a subtly sad sort of yearning. Jones reinterprets the track with a nu-jazz spin, her voice as warm and reassuring as mulled wine as it tumbles over pattering drums and lounge-jazz keys. The cover sounds classic yet invigorated by the modern; the arrangement takes a little from the original but mostly veers away into its own playful cosmos: the sound of lonely togetherness.
Lady Gaga somehow found the sex in “White Christmas,” which she recorded live during her 2011 Thanksgiving special. Gaga even added a couple of saucy lines to it, deeming the original song “too short.” As she said during the special, “It’s like when you really start to enjoy it, it stops. It’s like a really bad orgasm.”
Part of Cleopatra Records’ 2013 Psych-Out Christmas compilation, Iggy Pop’s interpretation of “White Christmas” is such an absurd proposition (it seems impossible to believe Iggy Pop has ever given a shit about Christmas) delivered with such absurd choices (buzzy psychedelic guitar? why?) that it’s ridiculousness sort of becomes its charm. It’s camp, albeit it in a deeply heterosexual way. Sure, Iggy Pop’s psychedelic interpretation makes for a good holiday-playlist curveball, but after a few listens (and a few very, very strong drinks), he starts to sound like, well, maybe not the Santa we wanted but the Santa we deserved all along.
Released in 1965 by Motown Records, the Supremes’ Christmas album was one of the label’s all-time best seasonal sellers. Among sacred songs and charming novelty hits, the trio’s rendition of “White Christmas” is the album’s standout. Over untouchably perfect harmonies, Diana Ross reels off the lyrics with an inviting serenity, as if she were calmly and earnestly bargaining with God to make the listeners’ Christmas “merry and bright.” A flute sounds off her request, a sound so sweetly sedative it could send you to sleep just in time for the nighttime snowfall to begin.
This posthumous release from Otis Redding reinterprets every single line to fit his beautifully stutter-y cadence. Although the lyrics had become cliché by the late ’60s, Redding grants them a whole universe of emotion as well as a kind of precarity — as though he were holding each of them like precious, paper-thin baubles — that make them sound both sacred and new. There’s an irony to it too. Choosing to ad-lib over the chorus, it appears Redding can’t quite bring himself to sing “May all your Christmases be white” the first time around: a subtle choice that still makes his agenda known.
While on tour in 1953, the Drifters’ Clyde Lensley McPhatter told his bandmate Bill Pinkney to come up with an arrangement for “White Christmas” in hopes of having a hit on their hands by the following Thanksgiving. His prophecy came to fruition. With their jazzed-up vocals, the Drifters’ smooth and soulful version soon became a staple, and Pinkney’s opening deep baritone became almost immediately iconic. The song’s status expanded again in 1990, when it was featured in Home Alone. In one of the film’s most famous scenes, Macaulay Culkin lip-syncs the opening lines into a hair comb, giving the track a kind of whimsy that we still associate it with.
Recorded during a time of upheaval and mounting emotional chaos, it’s fair to say the Beach Boys’ 1964 Christmas Album is a little shambolic. An unhinged mixture of covers and originals, the album has as many highlights as lowlights, which seems to make the band’s deeply assured cover of “White Christmas” all the more special. Brian Wilson’s vocals are dreamy and eerily melancholic, and the harmonies sound as if they were sung into a deep chasm. Most versions of “White Christmas” are designed to play in the background, but this one demands your full attention.
Louis Armstrong and Santa Claus shared the same mission statement: to bring joy to the world. It’s a mission Armstrong swiftly accomplished with his cover of “White Christmas,” each second of it glittering with joy. As part of the six Christmas records Armstrong made for Decca in the 1950s, his cover here is a relatively low-key affair, creating a warm sustained mood rather than relying on great hefts of horns and emotion. Armstrong was a friend of Crosby, and his version of “White Christmas” is unmistakably one of the best to ever be recorded.
The story of Elvis’s “White Christmas” cover is quite possibly the most controversial in the song’s long history. Berlin, it’s now known, wasn’t exactly a fan of Elvis, so when he learned that the singer had covered his song for Elvis’ Christmas Album in 1957, the composer took some drastic measures, including trying to ban the song from national radio. Stations across the country ignored his request, filling the sound waves with Elvis’s deep, crooning rock-and-roll take on the classic. Though it receives less radio play today, with the recent renewed interest in Elvis, it may just break through again this Christmas, reminding everyone that no one sings like the King.
Recorded only a couple of years after Crosby’s 1942 original, Sinatra’s version of “White Christmas” is the most faithful to it — and perhaps one of the only that could be considered an improvement. With a choir and orchestra arranged by Axel Stordahl, the strings swell to heart-leaping proportions, while Sinatra keeps things sedate and sanguine with an undramatic vocal, which drips with a warm camaraderie. Still one of the most-played versions of “White Christmas,” Sinatra’s is a swooningly lovely cover capable of turning even the biggest of grinches goo-goo-eyed.