This is a post in my continuing series on Gospel themes present in “Secular” Christmas traditions and content. This essay was originally published on my old blog “The Lion’s Alcove.”
An undeniable signal that the Christmas season has come upon us is the iconic sound of 24/7 Christmas music stations. In my hometown of Huntsville, there is only one Christmas station- “Lite 96.9”- unless you count BBN (which I typically don’t listen to). This guarantees that pretty much every establishment is playing this station (unless they have their own digital playlist or CDs). There are many classics that float through the sound systems. One of those is “White Christmas”. Sometimes the DJ selects atrocious covers instead of Bing Crosby’s performance but when you hear that warbling baritone voice begin to sing, “I’m…dreaming….of a white…Christmas….” you know that Christmas has truly arrived.
By way of background, Irving Berlin composed “White Christmas” for the 1942 movie Holiday Inn (which is substantially better than the movie “White Christmas”) starring Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire, and Marjorie Reynolds. In the movie, an easy-going entertainer named Jim Hardy (Bing) tries running a club that only opens on Holidays, allowing Bing/Jim to take off the other days. The conflict occurs when he finds gold in the undiscovered talent Linda Mason (Reynolds), but his old partner Ted Hanover (Fred Astaire) is determined to steal her away to be his new dancing partner and (eventually) bride. Jim fights back and the result is a movie full of old-fashioned charm and fun.
The song is first sung when Jim pitches the idea of “Holiday Inn” to Linda and performs it for her with just a piano and the tinkling sound effect produced by his pipe on the bells dangling from the Christmas tree. It’s a sappy but sweet introduction to their eventual romance and to a song that has etched its place in Christmas sounds. One of the best lines from Crosby precedes “White Christmas” and sets the tone:
Linda: My father was a lot like you, just a man with a family. Never amounted to much; didn’t care. But as long as he was alive, we always had plenty to eat and clothes to keep us warm.
Jim: Were you happy?
Jim: Then your father was a very successful man.
White Christmas is fundamentally a song of nostalgia and Jim Hardy is a man who is seeking a simple but happy life, a quest which induces nostalgia in Linda and everyone watching. In the end of the movie (SPOILER!), Linda rejects the lure of Hollywood and chooses instead to marry her simple but loving Jim when he surprises her on the set of a movie she is in (incidentally, a movie about a guy who starts a club called “Holiday Inn”…yeah it’s confusing- just watch the movie, okay?) as she performs “White Christmas.” At that moment, she realizes what she has truly wanted all along, and it isn’t the lights and glamour of Hollywood.
Nostalgia, as one of my RBC professors was fond of saying, is ultimately “a longing for Eden”. I think we feel this longing in White Christmas. The singer pines for a more peaceful, happier time when Christmas is as it ought to be (in his mind). A Christmas without snow feels somehow broken, lacking and unsatisfying. We all have those Yuletide associations that, if we don’t have them come December, it leaves a melancholy flavor in our gingerbread and an emptiness in our hot chocolate. Christmas is more than our memories and traditions, but we are human and our memories and traditions affect us.
The gospel reminds that while all might not be right with the world in our eyes, God has wrought for us redemption through the atoning death of His only begotten Son, Jesus Christ. He is restoring what was lost. Christmas is at the beginning of this grandest of all coups. So as we revisit Christmas memories and sip our wassail, give thanks and remember that to God our heavenly Father the whiteness or lack thereof in our Christmases does not matter one farthing, for our sins, though red as scarlet, are now as white as snow. And that is the real “White Christmas”.