Irving Berlin's much-loved classic Christmas musical, "White Christmas," has inspired us for many years. After watching the movie, who doesn't want to buy an old inn in Vermont and host a battalion of your friends come and drink and dance with you? Although there are many aspects of this movie that could be discussed, it is only the recurring theme of "snow," and how each snowflake is a symbol of the Eucharist, that we will be talking about today.
"White Christmas" was released in 1954, about a decade after the end of World War II. Correspondingly, the first scene in the movie is about WWII.
After WWII, much of Western society experienced a type of crisis of faith. The two horrendous World Wars had killed the faith of many. Until this time, the general consensus in society was that humanity was progressing on a slow, but inevitable course towards Utopia. Those alive prior to the 40s knew they may not be the ones who actually experienced this Utopia, but they were confident it would ultimately arrive.
The two great wars definitively killed this belief, and took with it the traditional view of a good God who was (generally) in charge of the world. How could a just God possibly allow such horrors to happen? How could any sane person still believe in him? And what kind of creation were humans, really, to be capable of such atrocities upon each other? If there was to be any hope for the future, humanity had to radically alter its course and turn away from the antiquated , useless religious model which had not saved them, and embrace a new model - a model based on the common sense and basic decency found in human nature.
Television in the 50s largely reflected this belief. TV shows portrayed impossibly tidy houses, families who solved their problems with a quick talk from lovable old Dad, while Mom handed out fresh baked goods and cleaned the house in high heels. Obviously, this was not daily life in most households, but it did portray the standard everyone was looking for - proof that society could be calm, logical and gracious. These shows very rarely included any form of organized, traditional religion. It was no longer necessary for the health of society.
This was the backdrop against which "White Christmas" was filmed. Since religion had been removed, Platonic values became enormously important, values like Friendship and Loyalty. This explains why Private Davis (Danny Kaye) is able to make the claim of Friendship for so many years after he saves Captain Wallace's (Bing Crosby) life. Above all, humanity had to stick together, to avoid another betrayal that would lead to WWIII.
So what is the solution for such a deeply wounded society? The answer lies in the snow, or more specifically, what the snow symbolizes. At the start of the movie, there is no sign of snow, despite the fact that it is winter, Christmas Eve, in fact. Rather, we see only grayness and rubble.
The answer lies in the snow - or what it symbolizes.
Snow is sung about by Captain Wallace, and it is painted in the fake backdrop hastily erected for the show, but it is not physically present. Here, the snow is only represented through longing. It is sung about by the soldiers who wish for the snow of their childhood, for that time of innocence and wonder to return again to their souls, washing away all that they have seen in the war.
But snow itself represents a deeper mystery. All of creation was crafted to be revelatory, to show something about God, its maker. Far from being an amoral entity, at times nurturing, at other times destroying, nature was designed to draw us into an understanding of the Trinity. After the fall, however, mankind lost its ability to "read" nature. But although our understanding of nature has been compromised, occasionally we stumble across a view or have such an overwhelming need (as in war) for the experience of God that we experience a deep longing. We may not be sure exactly what we are longing for, but we do know we don't have it. In this movie, the war represents not just the physical World Wars, but also the chaos and destruction they left and the collapse of generations of faith. A deep longing for snow emerges. For cleansing. For purity.
But snow represents even more than a desire for cleansing and purity. These are really side-effects. Snow, and each snowflake that makes it up, is a symbol of the Eucharist, in which we have an individual encounter with Jesus -the one and only source of deep, real and entire cleansing. If you have ever stood in a snowfall, you know how mind boggling it is that each snowflake is individual and different. How can there possibly be so many variations of the same thing? Yet, like the snowflakes, many saints have commented on the individual nature of each consecrated host. Christ becomes bread and wine - food and drink - so that he can have a personal relationship with each of us, meeting the needs of each person in the best way, in an intimate exchange of confidence.
Another scene portraying the deep desire for snow happens in the dining car, on the train. The Haynes sisters come to thank Wallace and Davis for giving up their sleeping car. The conversation turns to the upcoming stay in Vermont, and foursome sing a song called "Snow." Each of the four sings about how they plan to interact with the snow they will find at the end of their journey, as well as their great excitement to be about to see it. One of the sisters wants to "wash her hands, face and hair in snow" (there's that desire for cleansing expressed) while the other can't wait to see a "great big man, entirely made of snow." The song paints a picture of childish delight. Just as the soldiers in the opening scene long for snow, so, too, do successful, sophisticated adults.
Once arriving in Vermont, however, the travelers are surprised to see that there is no snow! Things are not as they expected. Nevertheless, they continue on to the hotel (a symbol of hospitality), sure that the snow will eventually arrive. Of course, another surprise awaits at the inn, as the innkeeper is none other than the general from the war. Due to the lack of snow, the general is in dire straits financially, even deciding to re-enlist.
Why is there no snow? What does this represent? In this situation, it shows that the expectations that the group, and society by extension, have assumed will naturally take place, are not happening. The snow falls every year. The seasons come and go in their appointed time. The circle of life continues. Yet, since the war the normal ebb and flow of life has ceased. Instead of enjoying retirement, the old general is trying to go back to work. The seasons are mixed up as well. Instead of being cold and crisp, Vermont is as warm as Florida.
What is important to note here is the response of Wallace, Davies and the Haynes sisters. We see Wallace, moved by pity for the general, spring into action. He decides to pull the entire cast of his popular show up to the old inn, to drum up some business. After hearing of the general's rejection by the army, however, Wallace feels compelled to do even more. He arranges to go on television and make a pitch to his entire division, reminding them of their obligations to the old leader and father figure who brought them safely through the bulk of the war.
Much of the movie, then, is spent showing preparations being made for Chrstmas Eve. this can be compared to our preparation period of Advent. We are typically very busy, filled with activities to prepare for Christmas. It is an exciting time. Like the cast, we have parties, sing songs, and spend time with those in our community. Just as they rehearse and rehearse, making sure everything is ready and right, we are also called to prepare, to reconcile, so that we are completely ready for the birth of Christ. Just as they are preparing for the musical "White Christmas," we also prepare for the snow - the birth of Jesus.
The climax of the movie occurs when the General finally enters the show room, and is surrounded by his loyal soldiers. The soldiers, who were scattered all over, have been brought back to the house of the "Father." They once again pledge their loyalty to the old general, and sing that they will follow him anywhere, although they hope it is "away from the battles gray."
And why are they willing to follow him into hell once more? Because they "love him, we love him, especially when he keeps us on the ball." This declaration is the heart, not only of the movie, but of the deep desire of mankind. Life may be more than we can bear. It can be awful, and even full of horror. It can be the opposite of what we want it to be. But, after all is said and done, we choose to hang onto Love, to Christ, even if this means descending into Hell with him, through a brutal crucifixion, because this is what gives meaning to our suffering.
Finally, the famous "White Christmas" is sung once more. How far we had traveled from the opening war! Now, on Christmas Eve, hearts are open to receive the Christ child, done be receiving, by being in communion with each other. Instead of being turned away at the inn, these inn doors are flung open. Outside, the world has been blessed with snow; pure, white snow - the arrival of Jesus. From the movie, this particular snow isn't even cold (a familiar theme in story tales), and the cast leaves the doors wide open. Inside, everyone gathers around the beautiful Christmas tree, singing together. People from all walks of life, from the past (the old friends and the general), present (the performers and adults) and future ( the children) are all there. It is a vision of heaven. Joyful people, beautifully dressed, seated at long banquet tables about to enjoy a feast in the house of their leader, their father, whose house literally has many rooms. There are no worries, no fights, just joyous belonging, friendship and harmony. The long, cruel war has been fought and is behind them. Now, there is only an eternity of comfort, peace and joy.
All the symbolism in this movie strikes a chord deep within us. OT be in house of our Father with those we love is the desire of us all. No amount of rejecting religion or turning away from God can change the makeup of our human nature. A wounded society may turn away for a while, but we will inevitably seek God out, even if unconsciously. In the words of St. Augustine, "all hearts are restless, until they rest in you." Really, we're all dreaming of a White Christmas.
Copyright 2014 Sarah Pedrozo