“White Christmas” and A Christmas Story

Here’s yet another melancholy Christmas song that loses a lot when it’s wrested from its context in the film, White Christmas (1954). The first rendition of the song in that movie takes place as part of a Christmas celebration in France in 1944, as the gathered troops wonder when (or if) they’ll ever again take part in family holiday celebrations. Much like Judy Garland’s “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” from Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), it’s really a three-hanky operation (and right at the start of the movie!), not at all a happy, light, and cheery little number.

We missed seeing White Christmas again last weekend, but today we’ll make it to the showing of A Christmas Story at our local retro-movie house. Bring the whole family, patronize the bar, and tip your servers generously!

I particularly enjoy the scenes in Ralphie’s school and among his peers there. Although I think I went to elementary schools at least 30 years later, there are remarkable continuities about the sociology and dynamics of third grade, from the 1940s to the 1970s and even into the 2010s. (Ralphie would never be terrorized by Scott Farkus today–he’d be delivered to school in an SUV or a minivan with heated seats instead of walking to school. But then, he’d never have the opportunity to take revenge on Farkus either.)

10 thoughts on ““White Christmas” and A Christmas Story

  1. The song itself dates to the early 1940s, and was previously used by Crosby in the 1942 film _Holiday Inn_ (this from Wikipedia, but I remember seeing them both on late night t.v. in grad school and always getting them mixed up). The concept, about a New England farmhouse inn being opened only twelve times a year, on major holidays, each with its own song, was kind of cool, although the film was very problematic by the time I saw it because of unvarnished racial stereotyping and a range of other things that were anachronistic or hokey. Nothing surprising about it in its 1940s context, however. I recently stumbled on a Facebook site called “I went to [my former elementary school].” It drew thousands of posts across maybe three different post-WW II generations, and was hillarious if only for various retro-controversies among the posters over teachers that individual posters liked or hated, the physical geography of the building itself, and other things.


  2. Even in the original Holiday Inn, White Christmas was extremely melancholy. It’s a shame about the racial stereotyping (a blackface number for President’s Day!, a black cook named Mamie!) b/c the film is otherwise quite good with several spectacular Fred Astaire dancing sequences, and Virginia Dale and Marjorie Reynolds in fantastic roles for showing off musical theater chops. It’s sometimes shown on TV edited for modern sensibilities with little harm to it’s overall appeal.


  3. For the Indus, Muslims, Buddhists, Jews and pagans (it’s still legal) there is a good reason to “[b]ring the whole family, patronize the bar, and tip your servers generously!”

    Those who works, who have a roof over their head or other fortunate people, it’s a time to celebrate. I light candles which makes it special time for my grandkids.

    No melancholy for me


  4. Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” became a hit first on Armed Forces Radio during World War II. It was played on Armed Forces Radio after its release in October 1942. NPR interviewed the author of a book about the song in 2000: http://www.npr.org/2000/12/25/1116021/white-christmas

    “White Christmas” and the 1951 version of “Scrooge” (with the wonderful Alastair Sim) were my family’s holiday movies before “A Christmas Story” hit the airwaves. Now, I’m sorry to say, we’ve a leg lamp in our bay window every holiday season, thanks to my baby brother (who also came home from a holiday party one night several years ago and asked if the movie we were watching was “It’s a Helluva Life”).

    And Historiann, you are right. My nephew is in third grade now, and his tales of his schooldays aren’t that much different that what his father experienced–including this weekend spent on writing a composition.


  5. “Meet Me in St. Louis” is fabulous for every holiday and has a wonderful rendition of Halloween as it was celebrated in the early part of the century — all about the tricks. “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” was always my favorite seasonal song because it seemed to remember, amid all of the enforced joy, that Christmas can be a sad time of some, but we can “muddle through somehow.” I shun all versions that change that line.

    Not only was my 3rd grade similar to the social dynamics of “A Christmas Story,” but I attended third grade in a school building that dated to the same era. My grandmother had taught in it back in the ’50s. Paper snowflakes in the windows, built-in book cases under the windows, wooden floors — I even had one of those long stocking caps for the three winter days that happen in New Orleans.


  6. Indyanna & History Maven–thanks for the further context on “White Christmas.” I have seen Holiday Inn, both versions, and think the earlier version is the better one, although needlessly and pointlessly racially inflammatory. Embarassing!

    Clio B.: my elementary school looked just like the one in A Christmas Story, too. Still does, as far as I can tell! We had bad carpeting installed over the wood floors, though.


  7. Nice post. A few things:

    -I heard the Judy Garland “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” while out shopping last week and teared up right there in Target. The poor snowmen! Poor Tootie! Poor Judy! Poor all of us… We’ll have to muddle through.

    -“Holiday Inn” – I love this movie, used to watch it throughout the year on VHS as a kid, just pulled out the DVD over Thanksgiving. The racial politics are incredibly uncomfortable, but Mamie is played by the wonderful Louise Beavers (she starred in “Imitation of Life”) so getting to see her lessens the blow a tad. Bing in blackface is troubling indeed, but his character isn’t really being presented in a rosy light at that point anyway, as he’s lying and manipulating to keep his girl down on the farm.

    -As for “White Christmas” I’ve never loved it like “Holiday Inn.” It seems too preachy to me. Gotta love that “Sisters” number though (which my sister and I belted out for our friends after making them sit through “Holiday Inn” with us at Thanksgiving).


  8. “Sisters” is the best–I like both the straight and the trans versions.

    Your comments about Holiday Inn recall something I’ve been thinking about with respect to film history. On the one hand, racial stereotyping is really offensive. On the other hand, if people with modern sensibilities decide to edit or just not show any movies from the early and middle of the twentieth century that include racial stereotyping, then the presence of black characters in film (or black-inspired animated characters like the crows in Dumbo) will be zilch. As you note, black actors worked against incredible odds to be cast and to do quality work in such constrained roles, but many of them achieved real distinction.

    As a historian, I am wary of “whitewashing” film history because of the erasure of both nonwhite peoples and of white racism from American films.


  9. Beavers in this film is a pretty big deal to me since as I said I loved the film as a child when the “Mammy” stereotype went right over my head. As a kid I saw Holiday Inn’s “Mamie” as the woman who kept the place running while Bing spent all his energy angsting. Those single-night extravaganzas don’t organize themselves, and think of the tight profit margins! Now it’s hard to have that childhood admiration overlaid with cultural sophistication that casts the character as such a 1-dimensional trope. I started seeking out her films a few years ago after enjoying her in “Mr. Blandings Builds his Dream House” (if you ain’t eating Wham, you ain’t eating ham!) and “42nd Street” and putting that together with my old love of “Holiday Inn.” That led me to “Imitation of Life” which I’d always avoided because for some reason I thought I didn’t like Claudette Colbert. Wow, whatta movie!

    I have a kind of idiosyncratic way of winding my way through film history – following the trail of character actors through a studio’s output. Kind of the anti-auteur theory? But it gets me to interesting places…


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