White Christmas, Secular Visions


Many people have been “dreaming” of a White Christmas ever since they heard the song for the first time. Composed by Irving Berlin for the film Holiday Inn (1940), the lyrics (via the dulcet crooning of Bing Crosby) convey a snowbound, will-o’-the-wisp setting, where the treetops glisten/ and children listen/ to hear sleigh bells in the snow; it’s romanticized dreaming at its best. Nevertheless, it invokes a very real place, if only in one’s imagination or, of course, in one’s dreams; a place many of us had somehow experienced in the distant past (even if we had grown up in the tropics) and will experience again sometime in the future. In short, the song conjures up various forms of personal nostalgia.

White Christmas forever associated elements such as the white of snow and the sound of sleigh bells with the ostensible joy and love of the Christmas season. But what does the like of snow and sleigh bells have to do with the birth of a messianic figure born in Judea over 2000 years ago? Obviously, it has nothing to with either the demiurgic, the historic, or apocryphal Jesus and everything to do with Christmas’ preponderant secular aspects; just one example from a clever blend of classic literature, sentimental song and exploitative commercialism that gave the Christmas season its unique charm for well over a century.

One credits Charles Dickens, author of “A Christmas Carol,” which was hugely influential in establishing various Christmas rituals. Dickens was born in 1812, and as a child experienced a run of very cold, snowy winters during Europe’s “Little Ice Age.” His romanticized memory of those winters went into the book [and into most of his other Christmas works].

In the past, snow meant horse-pulled sleighs, which made it easier for people to get together for the holiday. And nostalgic illustrations, like Norman Rockwell’s snowy Christmas scenes, also played a role. The Seattle Times

Indeed, Christmas has gone through so much configuration and transfiguration in its nearly two millennia lifetime–from a pagan-influenced to a Gnostic-revised to a Catholic Church-decreed to a Reformist-modified form of ritual—that it boggles the mind. Such romanticism as Berlin’s winter fairyland became popular because it was easier to comprehend and, perhaps, easier to arrive at. Like the Magi following a mysterious star, modern man tends to follow an equally mysterious body in that of the human heart. We’re constantly in search of that special place: be it one of glistening treetops and sleigh bells or a lowly manger sheltering a heavenly infant; a place that offers an entrancing promise of love.