Plenty of modern American Christmas traditions are artificial, commercialized, or otherwise pale shadows of their former glory, but the Christmas nostalgia industry does broadcast old works of art and music to millions who have a steady diet of pop culture garbage the rest of the year. Many of the tiny fragments of European culture that are still commonly known by the masses are passed down through Christmas songs and movies. The film White Christmas is one of the exemplary artifacts of American culture before the wholesale destruction of social norms that emerged in the 1960’s. Forty years ago one could already look back at White Christmas wistfully, but in 2017, when the very name is an implicit micro-aggression, everything about the film subverts the politically correct majority culture.
White Christmas opens at a World War II Christmas Eve concert for American servicemen. There is not a woman in sight, and the crowd is also, to a modern eye, strikingly monochromatic, which means that it accurately reflects the demographic reality of 1940s USA. The troops can sing about their love for their commander, General Waverly, without a hint of irony or a whisper of homoeroticism. This homogeneous band of soldiers also shows great courage and selflessness under fire, risking their lives for their comrades.
Captain Bob Wallace, a singer in civilian life, played by Bing Crosby, is saved by Private Davis, and the two go into show business as partners after the war. Wallace and Davis become famous, and as a favor for their old Army pal Sergeant Haynes, they agree to critique the act that his sisters have been performing. A series of comic circumstances that Davis orchestrates lead Wallace, Davis, and Betty and Judy Haynes to a rustic Vermont inn. General Waverly owns the inn, but he is struggling financially in civilian life. Wallace and Davis use their show business and Army connections to bring their profitable variety show and General Waverly’s former troops up to Vermont for a surprise Christmas Eve celebration.
The whole plot of White Christmas hinges on one of the most reviled and maligned aspects of traditional Anglo-American culture, the old boy network. The net of personal friendships and favors that used to guide business decisions is how the Wallace and Davis act first began, how the two men met the Haynes sisters, and how they manage to contact their soldier friends by TV broadcast to help General Waverly. Today the old boy network is denounced as a vestige of White male privilege, just as anything that benefits a White family or community is criticized as nepotism or tribalism, but in White Christmas it is portrayed in a positive light. The one character in White Christmas who doubts the sincerity of Wallace and Davis almost ends up ruining the show because she thinks the men are only involved for the free advertising. The charity and sentimentality of the old boy network in White Christmas is much more plausible than the sudden Christmas miracles and inexplicable character arcs in modern films like Elf or National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.
White Christmas also features courtship rituals under those oppressive patriarchal rules that feminists have labored so long to escape. The women in the film actually assume that they would benefit from the care and protection of a husband! One of the finest set piece musical numbers in the film would today be decried as heteronormative reinforcement of unrealistic female beauty standards and borderline sexual assault. Back then it was just called dancing, before Youtube degraded that term by associating it with the epileptic writhing of African mating rituals.
Even the costumes reinforce distinct sex roles. Women wearing slacks is correctly viewed not as liberation but as an unfortunate wartime necessity or as a temporary concession for an artistic performance. When Wallace and Davis perform one of the Haynes sister’s songs, the humor comes from the silly adaptation of male clothes and voices to the female duet. When the characters are most beautiful and most themselves, the women are wearing dresses and the men are wearing suits and ties. This ‘clothes make the man’ aesthetic is probably more familiar to modern audiences than to viewers a few decades ago, since feminists who spent years downplaying the importance of clothing and pushing unisex fashion have recently rediscovered the importance of dresses as means of displaying the transsexual bona fides of their young sons.
The love story in White Christmas takes up a lot of time, but the most significant depiction of male and female interaction in the film actually has nothing to do with sex, nor does it involve any of the four leading characters. Next time you watch White Christmas, keep an eye on General Waverly’s granddaughter every time she is on screen with her grandfather. Just keep track of her looks of admiration and respect as she catches glimpses of a side of her grandfather, fighter and leader of men, that she has never seen before. There is a whole story being told in momentary glances and split second smiles, behind the main action of the plot, and it is actually bigger than any of the stars in the film. Most of the great achievements of Western Civilization can be traced back at some point to the desire of women to have fathers, brothers, and husbands they can respect and the striving of men for achievements to make themselves worthy of receiving such honor. European society has derived great strength and beauty from that subtle interplay of male and female desires that is itself a grand dance as intricate as any in White Christmas. Susan Waverly, despite having hardly any dialogue, embodies the womanly spirit that is so critical to the success of cultural endeavors.
A common and legitimate complaint about dissident counterculture is that activists often fail to recognize or retain what is valuable in their eagerness to cast off the bad parts of the majority culture. This is particularly true today, when the intergenerational bonds of memory and tradition have been severed. The Alt Right has been caricatured as nothing more than the residual ironic humor and shocking memes that are left after social mores are abandoned but no new culture has taken their place. There is some truth to the accusation because we are in the awkward transitional phase when long suppressed traditions are being rediscovered and new values are just beginning to be shaped. Under current conditions White Christmas is not only a catalogue of lost traditions but a guide for the perplexed gentiles who celebrate Christmas without knowing how or why they do so. White Christmas is a tame, secular film that will not explain the why of Christmas. For the European who has been robbed of his culture and aspires to something more than plastic festivities but cannot even imagine what a real communal holiday would look like, White Christmas is a great first lesson in how to celebrate.