Section V

A New Era of Christmas Entertainment

“White Christmas” propelled a new era of holiday entertainment that promoted a nostalgic yet inclusive vision of Christmas.

Berlin’s songs, Crosby’s star power, Technicolor, and VistaVision propelled the success of White Christmas (1954).
Courtesy of Paramount Studios.

“White Christmas” sold two million copies during the war years. After five million, Decca’s master dub plate wore out. Crosby recorded the song again in 1947, and it appeared on Crosby’s Merry Christmas — the first Christmas album ever produced.

Nat King Cole, known for “The Christmas Song” (1946), posed with his daughter, Natalie Cole (1955).
Courtesy of Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images.

The song’s success launched a new era of holiday entertainment. The first signs of this came when Crosby recorded “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” (1943) and when Judy Garland sang “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” in Meet Me in St. Louis (1944). In both songs, nostalgia fueled dreams of a future in which loved ones would be together at Christmas, just as in “happy golden days of yore.”

The postwar years then brought an outpouring of songs about snow, sleigh rides, and Santa Claus, including “Let it Snow!” (1945), “Here Comes Santa Claus” (1947), “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” (1949), and “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” (1951). Two Jewish Americans, Mel Tormé and Robert Wells, wrote “The Christmas Song” (1946) and gave it to Nat King Cole.

As postwar exuberance gave way to anti-communist anxieties, a trio of films tied Christmas not only to Santa and snow but also to that deeper longing for simpler times. Hollywood had long produced films that embraced nostalgia, but these three films resonated because they also affirmed family, friendship, and faith.

Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) revolved around Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey.
Courtesy of Paramount Studios.

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) revolved around George Bailey, a man who thinks he’s a failure until an angel shows him how much he means to his family and community. The Bishop’s Wife (1947) likewise featured an angel who helps a bishop remember the value of his relationships. Miracle on 34th Street (1947) questioned whether a Macy’s fill-in is the real Santa Claus. A store executive’s daughter is skeptical, but her childlike sense of belief is restored and rewarded.

In these films, bonds of family and friendship are tested, but they prove their strength and worth just in time for Christmas. Faith is affirmed — but it’s a faith in humanity and in the transformative power of the holiday season itself.

Although A Christmas Carol (1951) and other films tested studio executives’ faith in the bankability of Christmas, Irving Berlin wanted to bring “White Christmas” back to the silver screen. Hoping to reunite Crosby and Astaire, Paramount agreed to finance a follow-up to Holiday Inn.

When Astaire backed out, Danny Kaye replaced him, joining Crosby, Rosemary Clooney, and Vera-Ellen. The plot was largely recycled, but the production was dazzling. Berlin’s songs, Crosby’s star power, Technicolor, and VistaVision’s widescreen format helped make White Christmas the highest-grossing film of 1954.

The titular song in White Christmas (1954) evoked fond memories for the characters and for those in the audience.
Courtesy of Paramount Studios.

The film tied Christmas to friendship, romance, snow — and unabashed nostalgia. The Cold War had intensified in the early 1950s. The Soviets developed the H-bomb, and Americans were divided not only by racial injustice but also by McCarthyism. In this new time of turmoil, White Christmas used Berlin’s beloved song to evoke fond memories of past Christmases and times of unity.

Over the next couple of decades, Christmas entertainment reflected changing contexts and cultural influences. Elvis Presley’s bluesy cover of “White Christmas” (1957) appealed to younger audiences, as did the upbeat music of A Christmas Gift For You (1963). The popularity of Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass’s Christmas Album (1968) and José Feliciano’s “Feliz Navidad” (1970) reflected the growth of Mexican American and Puerto Rican audiences and influences.

Christmas specials such as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964) entertained children during and after the 1960s.
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Christmas films were fewer in number, yet they ranged widely — from the critically-acclaimed The Apartment (1960) to the ill-advised Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964). Recognizing a growing audience of baby boomers, many producers turned to television and animated specials such as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964), A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965), and How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966).

Crosby remained a fixture on television during the 1960s and 1970s with his own annual Christmas specials that featured family members and longtime friends. Crosby’s 1977 special included a duet with David Bowie and his last public performance of “White Christmas.”

Hollywood rediscovered Christmas during the 1980s, largely because of A Christmas Story (1983), a film that recalled childhood escapades, family dynamics, and Christmases that were less than perfect — and indulged in nostalgia for them anyway. A stream of Christmas films followed over the next two decades, including Scrooged (1988), Home Alone (1990), The Santa Clause (1994), and Elf (2003).

A Christmas Story (1983) triggered a new wave of Christmas films during the 1980s and 1990s.
Courtesy of Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

Each decade also brought scores of new Christmas albums, but the production of new standards was rare. An exception was Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You” (1994), a song that stood out because it tapped into nostalgia for the upbeat Christmas music of the early 1960s.

Americans in the 2000s and 2010s continued to consume new Christmas entertainment every year, but nostalgia was ever-present. A family’s viewing of The Grinch (2018) might simultaneously recall the live-action version from 2000, airings of the television special during the 1970s, and even readings of Dr. Seuss’s original book during the 1950s. Likewise, hearing “White Christmas” — Crosby’s version or any other — could evoke cherished memories of childhood, family gatherings, and Christmases past for multiple generations of Americans.

“Have yourself a merry little Christmas / Let your heart be light / Next year all our troubles will be out of sight.”

hugh martin and ralph blaine (1943)
Actor Ken Jeong and members of the a cappella group The Filharmonic performed in the final scene of A Christmas Story Live! (2017). Courtesy of Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

Christmas entertainment promoted an inclusive vision of the holiday. But not all Christmas entertainment was inclusive.

Irving Berlin’s biographers note his enthusiasm for blackface — a practice that originated in the 1830s when minstrel performers with darkened faces portrayed African Americans in derogatory ways. White audiences found this entertaining, and the practice continued well into the age of Hollywood. For Berlin, the inclusion of a blackface number in Holiday Inn made perfect sense. Crosby was no stranger to blackface, either, and he performed “Abraham” with conviction.

Blackface had faded from Hollywood by the 1950s, yet its shadow still fell on White Christmas. Berlin included an old favorite, “I’d Rather See a Minstrel Show” (1919). The film’s casting also offered a subtle reminder that Crosby’s character had served in a racially-segregated military.

The 1960s brought dramatic social change, yet some Christmas entertainment retained a legacy of racial stereotyping. A Christmas Story, for example, concludes in a Chinese restaurant, where the humor comes at the expense of waiters who struggle to sing “Deck the Halls.”

Recent years have brought new measures of inclusivity. Most televised showings of Holiday Inn now omit “Abraham.” Similarly, A Christmas Story Live! (2017) altered the final scene by casting members of The Filharmonic to sing a flawless version of “Deck the Halls.” The producers even added a Hanukkah song, “Market for a Miracle.”

Continue to Section VI. An Americanized Christmas Tradition