(Pictured: an antique store display featuring the 1947 issue of Bing Crosby’s album Merry Christmas.)
In the summer of 1948, Columbia Records introduced the long-playing record: a disc that rotated at 33-1/3 revolutions per minute and could therefore contain more music than a 45 or a 78. But the summer of ’48 does not mark the birth of the “album.” Those has existed before: bulky sets of 78s with one song per side, heavy, fragile discs made at first of shellac and later of vinyl, packaged in a box or a folio with heavy paper envelopes to hold each disc.
On December 1, 1945, Decca released a five-disc album by Bing Crosby called Merry Christmas. It collected ten songs Crosby had recorded in recent years, not all with a Christmas theme; it included a version of “Danny Boy,” the hymn “Faith of Our Fathers,” and a song called “Let’s Start the New Year Right.” It was an expensive set, but it sold in numbers that surprised even Decca—especially considering that another Crosby album, featuring songs from the movie Going My Way, was already in stores and selling well, and that the songs on Merry Christmas had been available as singles for a couple of Christmases already.
In the CD era, music buyers often joked about how many times they’d bought certain albums, in different formats and configurations. Buyers of Merry Christmas could have done the same. In 1947, Decca reissued it as a four-disc, eight-song set, dropping “Danny Boy” and “Let’s Start the New Year Right.” Crosby re-recorded “White Christmas” and “Silent Night” for the 1947 reissue—his 1942 recordings were so popular and so many copies were made that the masters actually wore out. When you hear the songs today, you’re hearing the 1947 recordings. Two years later, Merry Christmas appeared for the first time on a single 10-inch, 33-1/3 RPM disc. In 1950, Decca put out the old eight-song, four-disc box again, only in the form of 45s. In 1952, the four-disc 45 box was replaced by a two-disc set of EPs, each with two songs on a side. Having exhausted the formatic possibilities at that point, Decca left Merry Christmas as it was, but only until 1955. In that year, labels started to discontinue the 10-inch album format, so Merry Christmas got its first issue as a standard 12-inch, 33 1/3 RPM album. It was expanded to 12 tracks with the addition of four songs Bing released on singles in 1950 and 1951, and it became the standard configuration. Merry Christmas was released again in 1963, in rechanneled stereo. The 1986 CD issue was in the original mono and was titled White Christmas. As recently as 2014, the 12-track mono album was issued again, in a limited-edition vinyl remaster with the original title. (The complete release history of the album is even more convoluted, but there’s a fine rundown at Wikipedia, if you care.)
Although there are now several Crosby Christmas albums, some of which mix tracks from the 40s with later songs, some of which include rechanneled stereo tracks alongside mono originals, the 1955 mono Merry Christmas is the one you want. Its three songs with the Andrews Sisters (“Jingle Bells,” “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” and “Mele Kalikimaka”) are playful performances that capture Bing’s public personality. “Christmas in Killarney” was a remarkably popular holiday song for a long time. “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” first heard at Christmas 1943, is beautiful in any era, but was especially potent during World War II. (It was actually banned by the BBC, fearing it might harm British morale.) And there’s a perfectly good argument that Crosby’s recordings of “White Christmas” and “Silent Night” are the only Christmas songs you really need.
Every time a popular artist releases a Christmas album, he or she is following in the footsteps of Bing Crosby and Merry Christmas, which was the first. It’s sold something like 15 million copies over the years. Only the 1957 Elvis Presley Christmas album (with 19 million) has outsold it. And if your local megamart still carries a few Christmas CDs or vinyl albums, chances are good that Merry Christmas is one they have in stock.
Note to Patrons: At some point in the next few days, we’re going to go over 1,000,000 hits at this blog since I started counting in 2007, as indicated under “Cume” in the right-hand column. I am under no illusion that this represents anything like a million readers. To you who come here regularly, let me again express my thanks. That people still like to read this stuff—that anybody ever liked to read this stuff—still surprises me a little.
We’re on hiatus now until Friday, December 27. Merry Christmas to all.