My all-time favorite Christmas movie is White Christmas. And since Christmas is my all-time favorite holiday, season, time of year, etc., that might make White Christmas a top contender for my favorite movie of all time. I was raised on it, and I can’t help but admit nostalgia is a huge factor in why I love it so much. But I remember showing it to my best friend for the first time in high school, and he was also hit with waves of nostalgia. How, why? He’d never seen the film before. It’s because White Christmas was meant to embody the modern idea of Christmas spirit, secular Christmas season, and all the nostalgia that ties to that time of the year.
White Christmas kind of created that nostalgia, in fact. It came out in 1954, nine years after the end of WWII, when the country was reestablishing an identity and the baby boomers were just old enough to love Christmas. The film is built around Irving Berlin’s hit song “White Christmas,” which hit big after showing up in Holiday Inn in 1942 (Bing Crosby’s recording is still the most-sold single of all time). White Christmas was a film that coincided with and guided the creation of the modern idea of Christmas as the season took shape in post-war America. The highest grossing film of the year and highest-grossing musical of its day, the movie’s still a holiday classic, but there’s more to be said on its content.
Let’s start, of course, by seeing that key first number of the film, “White Christmas,” where Bing Crosby sings the classic tune. The film has opened during WWII (Christmas Eve, 1944, in fact), in an active war zone, and the soldiers are trying to enjoy some holiday fun before a change of command and the division moves up. The number is simple, Bing Crosby (as Bob Wallace) stands on stage and sings against a barrel organ. There’s a tone to the performance, both in its visual presentation, and Bing Crosby’s vocal performance, that lends itself to the bittersweet, melancholy sense to the number. The camera pans back and forth from Captain Wallace singing, in uniform, thumbs hooked in his belt, to the soldiers arrayed in front of the stage. Wallace has on his face that pleasant, resigned look that so evokes the bittersweet, and the many men sitting past him are in uniform, helmeted too, holding their guns, staring at the ground. Maybe they’re remembering what they’ve lost or hoping for the future Christmases they can have if they live to return home. Maybe they’re simply wishing they were home with their loved ones. They smoke and stare and fiddle with their guns and there’s no choreography, just a sense of mourning crossed with nostalgia. And I can’t separate Crosby’s voice and Christmas, so let’s say he sings with Christmas spirit or something, although that’s a stretch.
The set is a ruined town, destroyed by bombs and war, with a little stage set up, a tree and a painted backdrop of a classic snowy country scene. As the song goes on, you can hear the bombs going off in the distance, flashing in the sky beyond the scene. And the scene ends with an enemy attack, further driving home the immediacy of the danger and death that surrounds these soldiers. These are men who live in fear of their lives and spend their holidays missing the comforts of home and family. The audience of this movie when it premiered would have been full of people who remember themselves in a position not so different from this one. All that longing built and ended up creating the nostalgia we see today, so intertwined with the Christmas season.
The film’s not all Christmas, though. In the plot, Wallace and Davis are putting on a musical show, and many of the number make their way into the film itself. Out of these, let’s start with the infamous “Minstrel Number.” I’ll admit, I had never heard of a minstrel show outside of White Christmas. I assumed they looked like that (they don’t) and weren’t racist (they were) and were related to medieval minstrels (nope). So the number feels more than a little gross to watch, as I see Bing Croby and Danny Kaye sing about how much they love watching blackface shows.
Admittedly, it ages well in the shadow of ignorance, because they don’t say anything obviously racist. They make some puns, but puns aren’t racialized today like they were when minstrel shows were most popular. Structurally, the number imitates a minstrel show, but otherwise, characterization, costuming, acting, and music don’t denote minstrelsy in any way. The evening dress generally imitates the high-class presence of white stage performers from the turn of the century onwards. The big banjos painted behind the set are, in fact, the biggest indicator of the topic, besides those lines directly referencing minstrel shows. And, most significantly (and boy am I grateful for this), nobody’s in blackface.
It feels like a big step in the right direction, compared to, say, Holiday Inn, but it’s also a dangerous erasure. The number takes the racist history of the act, tosses it in the trash, and moves along, promoting racist media on a huge national platform. And for what? Not for an excellent product, just for filler. The music is fun and swingy, but lyrics and lines fall short. There is some slight recovery in the delivery, because of the strong chemistry of the lead roles on camera. They bring some comedy and reality to a number that otherwise takes itself too seriously, and keep the audience from placing too much expectation on the quality of song and dance. But even then, it’s a disingenuous performance of white ignorance that doesn’t do the work of removing racism from the entertainment industry.
Past the quiet, two-man opening on a sketched background, we get an immediate overload of garish, vaudeville-esque set design, with bright purple backdrops and platforms, white and red chairs and women in sparkly dresses, men in green and red suits. It’s intense, but it succeeds in evoking a strong vaudeville aesthetic, calling back to Follies routines, though with a little less elegance. The color palette is just bad. And for a minstrel number, everyone’s conspicuously white. The dance is excellent, as far as skill goes, but unremarkable in choreography. It’s simply an exuberant number with strong choral dance and tap presence.
We see this final strange erasure in the set design, costuming, and dance. After all the minstrel callouts, we see little to no minstrel elements. It’s strange (“Mandy” was actually originally written as a blackface number, and there is a later dance number to the music from “Abraham,” the blackface number from Holiday Inn) to have these potentials unused but I’m honestly relieved. If there was a real blackface number in White Christmas (like the one in Holiday Inn), I don’t know if I’d be able to let myself watch it. It would have been wonderful if minstrelsy was never brought up, and as a cherry on top, black actors were present in notable roles in the film. But even when it’s a mediocre number with strong racist history, it doesn’t hit so hard as to keep me from enjoying the rest of the film, which I’m grateful for.
This isn’t the only non-Christmas song in the film, there’s a whole slew of them, with the standout being “Choreography.” What in the world is going on here? “Through the air they keep flying, like a duck that is dying;” this song can get so nonsensical it hurts, but there’s kind of a point to that. On a strange, abstract backdrop, an ensemble of simply-clad women performs jerky contemporary dance moves, until eventually Vera-Ellen and John Brascia show up to do a classic tap and dance routine. Some throwaway lyrics at the start about contemporary dance lowering theater, and a few silly faces from Danny Kaye. There’s nothing much to this, and besides the impressive dance skills, there’s not a lot that lends it a place in a holiday movie. It’s here as filler, but it also shows some of the stranger sides of nostalgia. This isn’t a song in the public mind, not played on the radio with Christmas music, and honestly not super good. But I still love it because every year I know what’s next in the movie and I look forward to the next familiar, silly song.
There’s a lot more to be said about the musical, but I’ll close out by talking on “Snow.” This number feels classically Christmas to us in the modern day, with lines like “no white Christmas with no snow,” and “a great big man entirely made of snow, but it’s a new type of Christmas song at the time. “Frosty the Snowman” came out in 1950, and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” the year before (the animated specials didn’t come out until the 60s). Secular Christmas music was still new, songs about snowmen and reindeer and Christmas spirit, not Christ and glory and angels and advent. “Snow” never entered the national repertoire as a classic Christmas tune, but it does mark a change in the Christmas ethos at the time, when non-religious Christmas began to exist as mainstream.
The song’s simply set, they sing in a box car on their way to Vermont, which serves the story but does little for the number. In fact, they sit through the whole song. The sense of realism in this film comes through especially strong here, where nobody dances in froofy costumes unless the plot allows it. Simple harmonies, classic and endearing Bing Crosby warmth, and some simple lyrics with wintery imagery frame a pleasant interlude in the film. What does it do? It makes this song, and film, feel classic. Somehow this film captures all those things we tie so closely to our own national love for Christmas.
Watching this film, every single time I watch it, every year when Christmastime rolls around, I’m steamrolled with nostalgia. It’s a film built around nostalgia in the first place. White Christmas tried to tap into the American nostalgia for a classic Christmas at a time when people still remembered well the Christmases they’d lost. The film didn’t just use nostalgia, but in the end it also built it, helping to create the idea of a Christmas season, and of Christmas music, and even Christmas movies. It was on the cutting edge of a new cultural phenomenon and a new industry. With Christmas so loud in our lives each year (even for those who don’t celebrate it), there’s no surprise it secured a spot as a classic. Some numbers aren’t so memorable (or high-qulaity), and secure their spot in my memory simply because I’ve been watching this movie since as long as I can remember. Hearing utterly un-Christmas songs like “Choreography” still bring up a well of reminiscence in me and I love them for that. And now that I’m older, I can’t unsee the racist associations in the “Minstrel Number,” and further throughout the film. But of course, classic numbers like the all-time “White Christmas” stand in a league of their own. This era of Christmas music still plays nonstop on the radio every December, Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” remains the best-selling single of all time, the whole movie ends up a permanent fixture in households around the world. I’m going to watch this again with my family in like a week and it’ll be wonderful still. Merry Christmas!