Christmas not what it used to be, but becoming better

Friday, December 25, 2009

SO, YOU WERE dreaming of a white Christmas? Well, be careful what you dream of -- you just might get two feet of it. Not that it's all that white by now. The snows of last week, growing ever grayer under their daily misting of petroleum byproducts, plowed into alps that may loom over shopping center parking lots for weeks, are a reminder that white Christmases aren't what they used to be when Irving Berlin wrote that song and Bing Crosby first sang it.

But, then, for most of America, they never were. Mr. Berlin was known to favor warmer climes around Christmastime, and in fact there's an opening stanza to his "White Christmas" that you've likely never heard, which goes as follows:

"The sun is shining, the grass is green,

The orange and palm trees sway.

There's never been such a day

in Beverly Hills, L.A.

But it's December the 24th,

And I am longing to be up North . . ."

And maybe he really was. But that stanza was removed early on, wisely so, and the song went on to become the most essential contribution of all to the creation of the 20th-century American Christmas. It was a Christmas that was secular, sentimental, commercial and, to a large extent, more inclusive than the religious celebration that preceded and now accompanies it. The unlikely pastorale of children listening to hear sleigh bells in the snow was created by a refugee from pogroms whose last memory of Russia was the sight of his house burning to the ground when he was 5 years old. Israel Baline's family made its difficult way to a difficult life in a New York tenement, where he often heard his mother say, "God bless America," and some years later, after he became Irving Berlin, he wrote that, too.

"White Christmas" was written in time for the second Christmas after Pearl Harbor, the conclusion of a year that had gone very badly for America and its allies, but when things were starting to look more hopeful. Like a number of other popular songs that came along during the war, it captured the sadness of separation, the longing for peace and normality and the nostalgia for a better time that really wasn't that long ago. These shared emotions gave Christmas a new poignancy and significance during the war years, and made it something different from what it had been. Radio, with its nationwide audience -- just about everyone listened to the same shows -- not only amused and entertained, it comforted and reassured. In the dark war years, it created a new Christmas spirit.

Much of the sentiment has since faded, of course, but despite all the vulgarities, horror movies and other excesses, Christmas has continued to move toward becoming a truly national holiday, a time of good feeling and universally shared hopes, and an occasion in which all can share. And in the supermarket aisles, Bing Crosby still sings a song that is reaching 70 years old but can even now make you pause and reflect for a moment, though probably not on the sound of sleigh bells you've never heard.


© 2009 The Washington Post Company