This is part 6 of an Advent/Christmas series titled “Songs of Christmas.” For other parts of the series see the index. The index also contains the introduction for the series.
I was one of “those” people on March 19, 2003. It was my birthday, but neither Cindy or I felt much like celebrating. It was one of those things, we went out for dinner but not because either of us felt like it, but because it was the social convention (yes, we are fans of The Big Bang Theory).
You see, at that time, our oldest son Wayne, was in the Marine Corp. We knew he was supposed to be in Kuwait at that point. We watched news of the imminent war in Iraq every night. The common speculation across most a media outlets was, the ground war would start the next day, in fact, some were reporting that U.S. troops had already moved across the border and were making their way deeper into Iraq. That is not a report any parent wants to hear. Cindy and I literally feared for our son’s life.
When we got home that evening and we were watching the news again, the telephone rang. I answered it and I heard the words, “Hey Dad…” It was Wayne. No, he hadn’t thought about it being my birthday, he just had the opportunity to call home and he didn’t know when another opportunity would come so he was taking advantage. I didn’t care. If he had millions to spend, he couldn’t have given me a better birthday present than that phone call home. Still, knowing what he could be facing the next day or the day after or… it was also a heart wrenching phone call. It is safe to say, we didn’t want it to end, we wanted it to hang on. It was one of the few times I have actually seen my wife cry over one of the kids.
So, what is the point in all this? Though Wayne was not still in Iraq at Christmas that year, he was safely back at Camp Pendleton near San Diego and he didn’t come home for Christmas (Wayne was never able to come home at Christmas during his time in the Corps), I do have some idea of how this song came to be so popular and meaningful during the darkest days of World War II.
When lyricist Kim Gannon sat down in 1942 to write the words to “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,”in some ways, things were really no different during Christmas that year than at any other. There were Christmas decorations everywhere. Christmas trees were available for purchase. People were rushing around buying gifts for those on their lists, local Santa Clauses dressed up, rang their bells and smiled at little children but things were also noticeably different. The United States had been in the war for just over a year. Families by the thousands had sent their sons and daughters off to do their duty. Even on the “home front” things were different. People were needed for the manufacturing jobs of the war industry. People moved from farms and small towns to the cities causing families, even non-military families, to be separated during this time of year that was all about family. What made all this even worse, no one was completely sure the United States could even win this horrible war!
In the midst of all this, the scenes Gannon saw play out over and over again, the prayers of frantic parents (Cindy and I prayed more than a few of those during those early days of the Iraqi War), tearful goodbyes at train stations, the rush toward the mailman hoping to get a letter from the loved one far away. All the while, there was the listening to the news on the radio or reading it in the paper with both hope and dread and at the same time hoping, praying the telegram man would continue to drive past their home. Gannon sat and wrote, trying to capture the scenes that surrounded her. There was so much to say but so little in the ways to say it. Rather than trying to cover it all, she stuck to the basic idea. In a poem of really only a few lines Gannon captured the thoughts and emotions of people everywhere.
After Gannon had written her poem, she took it to songwriter Walter Kent. He understood the emotions of the song. With pictures of empty places at the Christmas dinner table and unopened presents under the tree, he set about his task. When his work was done, he had written a hopeful melody that fit Gannon’s words well.
On October 4, 1943, Bing Crosby recorded the song. It was a great follow-up to Crosby’s 1942 Christmas hit, “White Christmas” which stayed on the Hit Parade for 17 weeks in 1942 and early 1943 and then returned again to the Hit Parade during the Christmas season of 1943. Crosby’s “White Christmas” may be one of the all-time best selling singles, but during the remainder of the war, “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” had generated more air play and sold more copies than “White Christmas.” It was also the most requested song on the U.S.O. tour in both Europe and the Pacific.
Throughout the remainder of World War II and then during Korea and Vietnam, the song continued to be held close by military families all over the country. It may seem sentimental and sappy to young ears today but its simple message of hope fits this season of the year so well. And, for those of us who have experienced a child being in the war zone, the song has special meaning even today, and even if it wasn’t Christmas when he/she was there.
Have a blessed day in the Lord (yes, I know I’m quite late today so have a blessed evening),
Joy and Peace,
Copyright 2016, J. Keith Broyles, All Rights Reserved
Collins, Ace, Stories Behind the Best Loved Songs of Christmas, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001.
Collins, Andrew, Stories Behind the Greatest Hits of Christmas, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010.
Gant, Andrew, The Carols of Christmas: A Celebration of the Surprising Stories Behind Your Favorite Holiday Songs, Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2015.
Osbeck, Kenneth W. Joy to the World: The Stories Behind Your Favorite Christmas Carols, Grand Rapids: Kregal, 1999.
Silent Night: The Stories of 40 Beloved Christmas Carols, Uhrichsville: Barbour, 2013.