Irving Berlin's American Christmas

Mark Steyn on Irving Berlin’s Christmas.

An excerpt:

…There are two elements that helped “White Christmas” on its way, one of which Berlin couldn’t have foreseen: Pearl Harbor. Had America entered the war in Europe in 1939, “White Christmas” might have been just a hit record from a so-so movie. Instead, 1942 was the American serviceman’s first Christmas away, in the Pacific, under glorious sunny skies that only made home seem even more distant:

I’m dreaming of a White Christmas
With every Christmas card I write…

In Operation Shylock, Philip Roth wrote:

God gave Moses the Ten Commandments and then He gave Irving Berlin ‘Easter Parade’ and ‘White Christmas’. The two holidays that celebrate the divinity of Christ – the divinity that’s the very heart of the Jewish rejection of Christmas – and what does Irving Berlin brilliantly do? He de-Christs them both! Easter turns into a fashion show and Christmas into a holiday about snow… He turns their religion into schlock. But nicely!

But Roth is missing the point. In the end, “White Christmas” isn’t a song about snow. They had white Christmases in Temun, Siberia, where Berlin was born, but a white Russian Christmas wouldn’t be the same: It’s not about the weather, it’s about home.

In 1942, those GIs out in the Pacific understood that. And Berlin figured it out pretty quickly, too. The first thing he did was take the clever verse – the Beverly Hills orange-and-palm-trees stuff – off the sheet music. Twelve years later, building a new movie named for the song, Berlin acknowledged the men who made it special, in the best staging in the picture: Bing singing in the rubble, accompanied only by Danny Kaye’s musical box, as the boys rest their chins on their rifle butts and gaze into the distance, thinking of familiar places and friendly faces. Berlin couldn’t have predicted Pearl Harbor, but there’s no surprise that, once it had happened, his were the sentiments the country turned to.

Berlin was a professional Tin Pan Alleyman, but his story, his Christmas is there in the music, too. Indeed, we forget how much of himself is in those songs. “Blue Skies” was composed for the birth of his first child, Mary Ellin. For his son, there was “My Little Feller”, actually written for Al Jolson’s second talking picture but coinciding with the arrival of Irving Junior on December 1st 1928:

Sweet as can be
Climbing on my knee
Wait’ll you see
My Little Feller…

But Jolson threw the song out in favour of the more emphatic “(Climb upon my knee) Sonny Boy” and three-and-a-half weeks later, at five o’clock on the morning of Christmas Day, Irving Junior was found dead in his bassinet. “I’m sure,” Mary Ellin told me a few years back, “it was what we would now call ‘crib death’.” Does that cast the sentiments of “White Christmas”, written over a decade later, in a different light? As those GIs far from home understood, the tune is no jingle: It is, in more ways than one, a very Jewish Christmas song, with a plangent, wistful quality, an unsettling chromatic phrase, and an eerie harmonic darkening under the words “where children listen”; it’s not too fanciful to suggest the singer’s dreaming of children no longer around to listen. Afterwards, every December 24th, while the rest of the world was humming “White Christmas”, the Berlins would explain to their daughters that they had some last-minute preparations to take care of, leave the house and, as the sisters found out many years later, lay flowers on the grave of the baby brother they never knew they had. When the girls grew up and left home, Irving Berlin, symbol of the American Christmas, gave up celebrating it. “We both hated Christmas,” Mrs Berlin said later. “We only did it for you children.”

To take a baby on Christmas morning mocks the very meaning of the day. And to take Irving Berlin’s seems an even crueler jest – to reward his uncanny ability to articulate the sentiments of his countrymen by depriving him of the possibility of sharing them. A pioneer of the inclusive communal American Christmas, Berlin ended his life as neither Jew nor Christian but an agnostic.

I never knew about Berlin’s lost son until his daughter, now Mary Ellin Barrett, told me. A few years ago, we spent one December morning at her apartment plunking out “White Christmas” on the piano he wrote it on. Neither of us is any great shakes at tickling the ivories, and it was hopelessly out of tune, but stripped down to its essentials the songs character seems altogether different from, say, Garth Brooks’ take on it. As a child growing up on New York’s Lower East Side, Berlin would skip across the street from his orthodox Jewish home to his neighbors, the O’Haras, to play under the Christmas tree and eat the non-kosher food.

“My father,” said Mary Ellin, “believed in the secular American Christmas. There’s a lot of controversy about that, about whether there should be, apart from the Christian celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, a general festive celebration that anyone can join in with.” Nothing embodies the American idea — e pluribus unum — better than the American Christmas — imported from the Dutch, modified by Germans and Swedes, musicalized by Jews. But, in a “multicultural” age which prefers to celebrate our differences, we’ve moved beyond the separation of church and state to the separation of neighbor from neighbor — to the denial of the very possibility of a shared culture.

These days, the state sanctions only a drab sterility in the public square. A couple of years ago, in the industrial heart of England, Birmingham City Council decreed that henceforth the Christmas season would be known as “Winterval,” a name apparently less offensive to multiethnic sensibilities. Anyone who’s ever had the misfortune to visit Birmingham will understand why, having laid waste to every corner of their wretched fiefdom, these stunted pen-pushers should think nothing of replacing the accumulated human experience of centuries with a bureaucratic nullity.

Whatever his doubts about God, Berlin kept faith with his adopted land – and that faith is what you hear in “White Christmas”. This year, as in 1942, American (and Canadian) troops are on foreign soil and foreign seas dreaming of a white Christmas just like the ones they used to know. Spare a thought for them, and for the empty places at the table this year.

May your days be merry and bright
And may all your Christmases be white.

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