The War on Christmas continues. The latest salvo comes from Harold Meyerson, a columnist for the Washington Post. Meyerson attempts to enlist Irving Berlin, author of the song “White Christmas,” to the cause of a secular, nonreligious winter holiday that has nothing to do with Christ or tradition. Unfortunately, Meyerson made a significant blunder. He forgot to consult Irving Berlin himself.
But before getting to Berlin, it’s necessary to sum up Meyerson’s point. In his op-ed, “The Christmas He Dreamed for All of Us,” he gives a short bio of Berlin. The songwriter had spent his first five years in czarist Russia, where he witnessed his family’s home being burned down in, as Meyerson puts it, “a good old-fashioned, Jew-hating pogrom” — one of the few fully accurate things in Meyerson’s piece. Due to trauma, writes Meyerson, “it’s no surprise that when Berlin got around to writing his great Christmas song in 1941, nearly half a century after his family had fled the shtetl of Mohilev for New York’s Lower East Side, it was flatly devoid of Christmas imagery. It is, for all that, a religious song. It’s just that Berlin’s religion was America.” Furthermore, the song celebrates “an idealized winter landscape created for an urban nation that was busily shipping its young men overseas to fight Hitler and Japan….’White Christmas,’ with its implicit assertion that we can somehow get back to innocent Eden, found a ready audience.” If that’s not enough, Berlin married an Irish Catholic and raised his kids as Protestants.
Meyerson then delivers the money quote, the heart of his message and the message of the War on Christmas: “We are all Americans and these are our holidays. Easter belongs to all of us, even if it is about little more than strolling down Fifth Avenue. Christmas belongs to all of us. The religious content of these holidays was fine for Christian believers, but the composer of ‘God Bless America’ preferred to celebrate a common national identity, complete with common holidays that had nonsectarian meanings.”
Nonsense. It would have done Meyerson a world of good to check the archives of his own newspaper — specifically the December 19, 1954 edition of the Post, which published the piece “The Christmas I Can’t Forget.” It’s an interview with Berlin himself about the origin of “White Christmas.” While Berlin did indeed avoid talking about his early years in Russia, he did remember growing up in New York:
“I was a little Russian-born kid, son of an Orthodox rabbi, living on the lower East Side of New York City. I did not have a Christmas. But I bounded across the street to my friendly neighbors, the O’Haras, and shared their goodies. Not only that, this was my first sight of a Christmas tree…to me that first tree seemed to tower to heaven. I was so grateful to the O’Haras and all my other Gentile neighbors who kept inviting me in to share their Christmas on the following Hanukkah, which is the Jewish Feast of Lights when we exchange gifts…It delights me now to learn that many of our public schools have an interfaith program in which each student enjoys and respects the religious holidays of the other fellow. But in those early days we did this anyway, as in the words of my song, ‘doin’ what comes naturally.'”
Berlin goes on to explain how, in 1944, he finally realized the meaning of the song he had written. He was in New Guinea promoting the film This Is the Army. At a couple minutes after midnight, when Christmas Eve became Christmas day, a GI arose and led the troops in “a song for Irving Berlin.” They sang “White Christmas.” Berlin: “As the men sang, I understood for the first time the words I’d written for the song….I knew then that I had written a melody and a message meaning more than the symbolism of snow and sleigh bells.”
Unlike Meyerson, Berlin gets it. Christmas is more than snow and sleigh bells — and Easter is more than walking down Fifth Avenue. It is about selflessness. It’s about making the stranger and outsider welcome. It is about joy and about hope. It is, in short, about the message of the gospel. It is about the revolution that came to the world with the arrival of Jesus Christ — a revolution and a message that one not need be Christian to understand, embrace and want to spread.
At the end of his column, Meyerson takes a cheap shot at “the Fox News demagogues” who “want to impose a more sectarian Christmas,” a holiday “that divides us along religious lines. Bill O’Reilly can blaspheme all he wants, but like millions of my countrymen, I take attacks on Irving Berlin’s America personally. If O’Reilly doesn’t like it here, why doesn’t he go back to where he came from?”
Where Berlin came from is a New York neighborhood full of Christians who did not dilute the Christianity of Christmas, but lived out the imperative of the holiday by warmly welcoming a young Jewish immigrant to celebrate with them.