In 1943, World War II was raging and victory was far from guaranteed. The war separated family and drew women into the workplace. Amidst all the worry, chaos and grief, Bing Crosby released “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.” The song was composed by Walter Kent. Kim Gannon wrote the lyrics. Eventually Buck Ram also received credit for the lyrics because he had once written a poem with the same title.
“I’ll Be Home for Christmas” is written as a letter from a deployed soldier to his lover back home. He writes, “Please have snow and mistletoe and presents round the tree.” The song finishes, “I’ll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams.” Several heads of recording studios said that they liked the music but that the final lyrics of the song were too sad.
Finally, while playing golf with a friend from a recording studio in 1943, Crosby sang the song. Reluctantly, the friend arranged for Crosby to record the song. His instincts were on target. “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” stayed on the charts for more than ten weeks. It was one of the most requested songs at USO shows.
Over the years, Perry Como, Frank Sinatra, Josh Groban and Kelly Clarkson have all performed the song.
So, why were the recording studios so reluctant to give “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” a chance? Part of it was indeed the wistful line at the end when the soldier reveals he or she may return home only in a dream. During the war years, the entertainment industry tried to offer pieces that were light and funny. They were afraid that shows depicting death and deprivation might demoralize viewers.
It’s hard to say why the song became so popular. There is no doubt that the music is beautiful. Also, perhaps people were tired of Hollywood’s patronizing attitude. They were aware of the loss and danger whether Hollywood chose to show it to them or not.
In recent years, “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” has become popular again, thanks largely to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. In a Josh Groban version, real soldiers announce their names, ranks and units at certain points in the song.
“I’ll Be Home for Christmas” is a song that people might not have heard had it not been for the determination of Bing Crosby and the need of our country to both grieve losses and acknowledge hope.