by Interim Music Coordinator Sarah Jebian.
For as long as memory serves, movies have played a major role in my family’s holiday tradition. When I was very young, I remember watching “It’s a Wonderful Life” with my siblings. We’d squish ourselves onto the couch in our basement, the white, artificial Christmas tree glowing in the corner and journey through the story of George Bailey’s wonderful life. Even today, I ring the little bell ornament on my own tree and imagine some angel getting his or her wings. In my early teens, the holidays didn’t officially begin until we’d all watched “A Christmas Story.” Who can forget that awful lamp and the scariest mall Santa ever? Of course, there were cartoons too: “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “Frosty the Snowman” and so on. A lifetime of holidays can be charted using these classic films and perhaps no other film is as classic as “White Christmas.” For many of you, “White Christmas” conjures the same warm memories of family and eggnog, fires and festive lights as “It’s a Wonderful Life” does for me.
Now, I have a confession to make. Until recently, I had never actually seen “White Christmas.” For some reason, the movie never made it into the rotation of films we’d dust off and watch year after year, which is strange because it’s one of the only holiday-themed movie-musicals out there … and I come from a family of musicians. But I’d programmed “White Christmas” as the first of three community movie sing-a-longs at UUCF this year so I figured the time had come for me to join the ranks of “White Christmas” fans.
A few weeks ago, my family and I crammed ourselves onto the couch in the basement (the soft glow of our green, artificial tree casting stained glass shadows on the walls) and watched “White Christmas” for the first time. As soon as Bing Crosby started singing the title song, I smiled. What a beautiful performance! And then Danny Kaye, in all his comic brilliance, stole the spotlight (and never really gave it back!). I adored listening to Rosemary Clooney’s velvet voice and Vera-Ellen’s dancing left me breathless at times. I knew some of the songs but was unfamiliar with others. And then, I had quite a shock when we got to the “minstrel show” scene.
For those of you who are unaware, minstrel shows were an American form of entertainment developed in the mid-19th Century, lasting until the early part of the 20th Century when vaudeville surpassed minstrelsy as the primary entertainment the masses could afford. Minstrel shows were nearly always performed by white men in blackface and tended to lampoon or generalize black people into unflattering categories (the mammy, the “old darky,” the sexy mulatto wench, the black soldier, etc.). When the placard announcing that scene appeared in the movie, my husband and I literally gasped and I sat there wondering if Bing and Danny were suddenly going to appear on the screen in blackface. Thank goodness they did not. But still, the scene bothered me.
Not long ago, Linnea Nelson, Rev. David Miller and I attended a “Beloved Conversations” workshop, intended to give us tools and ideas to bring back to our congregation so that we might deepen our understanding of race relations in America and work toward a more equal and just nation. It was a powerful experience. One thing that really stuck with me was the facilitator saying, “It’s going to be messy. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Don’t be afraid of the mess.”
Viewing “White Christmas” through the lens of my “white privileged, historically Christian, Christmas-based holiday traditions,” I can honestly say I enjoyed the movie for what it was – an old fashioned movie-musical, naïve in the extreme but simple and lovely in its message of helping those we care about. However, I also can’t help but view the movie through the “1954 segregation, not a black face to be seen in the entire film, minstrel shows held up as legitimate entertainment to be honored” lens and I think … oh boy. Can I really present this movie as a community event, knowing as I do, the pain that the lack of racial diversity and specifically the minstrel reference might cause for some?
I believe that annual family traditions such as watching “White Christmas” or “It’s a Wonderful Life” or any other movies that shape our holidays are important. I also believe that we must be mindful of our shared history and acknowledge those among us to whom these films represent not joy but oppression. Therefore, after the movie on Dec. 18, we will invite anyone who would like to enter a deeper conversation about the racial implications of this film (and others like it) to meet with Rev. David in the far corner of the Sanctuary Commons.
UUCF is committed to racial justice, including those hard, messy conversations. We are also committed to creating community this holiday season by inviting everyone (strangers included) to come in, squish down next to us on the couch and sing along with Bing Crosby. “May your days be merry and bright …”
Happy holidays to you and I hope to see you at the movies!