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Irving Berlin wrote "White Christmas," one of the biggest-selling songs of all time, with tongue planted firmly in cheek. Although the wistful tune soothed homesick soldiers in such God-awful places as Guadalcanal more than half a century ago, and no doubt it still plays in Kandahar today, Berlin most likely wrote what he called "the best song that anybody's ever written" somewhere in the sunny Southwest, probably while sitting by a swanky hotel swimming pool.
Not only was Berlin, a Russian Jewish immigrant, not thinking of some idyllic family Christmas of his youth, chances are that this anthem to homesickness was composed with more than a little acknowledgment that, nostalgia aside, writing songs poolside wasn't so bad. No one knows for sure, but many have speculated that Berlin wrote "White Christmas" at either the Beverly Hills Hotel or the Biltmore in Phoenix.
Just listen to the opening verse Berlin deleted from the sheet music after Bing Crosby's less ironic recording topped the Hit Parade in 1942. Unless you're with the New Hampshire Chamber of Commerce, I doubt you'll have much pity for the songwriter's plight.
The sun is shining, the grass is green,
The orange and palm trees sway.
There's never been such a day in Beverly Hills, L.A.
But it's December the 24th
And I'm longing to be up north.
The all-but-lost bars point to the fact that Christmas is prime time for Americans to wrestle publicly with the conflict between our national obsession with geographic mobility and our much-vaunted love of home sweet home. This is when we allow ourselves to acknowledge the emotional and psychological costs of our rootlessness — our homesickness.
Since the late 19th century, argues Weber State University historian Susan J. Matt in her new book "Homesickness: An American History," Americans have accepted mobility and separation as the price of progress. By the mid-20th century, mental health experts and sociologists considered homesickness a condition suffered only by children and the weak-minded.
In 1963, sociologist Robert Gutman concluded that "mobility [had] been written into the American character." Our secret? "The ability to strike up satisfying conversations with people one has never seen before, the willingness to concede the legitimacy of a wide range of behavior patterns, the focus on the family as the primary group which must provide the principal source of satisfaction — these traits" combined to enable Americans to move from one place to another.
But come Christmas and we moan and groan about our freely made decisions to move away from home, exploiting the trappings of Christmas.
Thanksgiving is capacious and adaptable enough to allow for extended and new definitions of family — it celebrates, after all, Indians and Pilgrims, who come together as a community. But Christmas in the U.S. is more intimate, narrow and idealized. Its core story revolves around a holy nuclear family and a personal spiritual experience. We know for certain Ebenezer Scrooge has undergone a Christmas transformation when he rejoins his own family and shores up Bob Cratchit's.
"White Christmas" is only the most famous example of the yearning, nostalgia and homesickness that pervade American pop Christmas culture. Judy Garland's great "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" gets downright morose with lyrics like "Someday soon, we all will be together / If the fates allow / Until then we'll have to muddle through somehow." And there's the lost-love loneliness of Elvis Presley's "Blue Christmas" and Dan Fogelberg's 1980s classic "Same Old Lang Syne."
From "Elf" to "Home Alone," movies too are rife with tales of separation and longing on the 25th of December. Commercials (Audi this year; Folgers in years past) make "home for Christmas" a leitmotif. And let's not forget that one of the most popular ways to spread holiday cheer, the Christmas card, is a perfect fit for a society built on mass mobility. Americans don't move as much now as they used to, but, particularly in the West, where less than 50% of residents were born in the state where they reside, mobility is alive and well.
"White Christmas" and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" were made popular in a time of war, when millions of young men were shipped overseas during World War II. But that doesn't diminish their appeal to the rest of us, who do most of our moving by choice and, according to a 2008 Pew Research Center survey, for reasons having to do with "job and business opportunities." By contrast, most who choose to remain in their hometowns cite "the tug of family ties."
That tension between the tug of family and the allure of opportunity suggests that at some point those who move far from home determine that the benefits of relocating outweigh the costs. That doesn't mean they never get homesick. Nor does all the nostalgic emoting at Christmas indicate that they'd seriously consider going back home. Because let's face it, though a white Christmas might have its charms, sunshine and palm trees on the 24th of December are not too shabby either.