DANIEL VAUGHAN: Lessons from White Christmas, or learning to remember

The week before New Year’s is one full of reflections as we look back over the past year and look forward to the next.

The desire to venture into the future, imagining what happens and what goals we could hit, is one of Americans’ best traits. We believe in a better tomorrow, and it’s generally better to keep that optimism as opposed to the opposite.

But we’ve long known that optimism can cause us to forget important things and even people.

I was struck by our capacity to forget over the Christmas season while watching the 1954 classic movie musical, White Christmas, starring Irving Berlin, which spun off the Christmas song of the same name.

If you recall, White Christmas, set in the middle of World War II, starts off on Christmas Eve 1944. Hostilities were still raging across Europe. The European front of the war would not end until about six months later, in May 1945, with the Japanese finally surrendering in September 1945. The 1954 release and setting of White Christmas came less than a decade after the end of the largest global conflict in human history and during the ending armistice of the Korean War.

Unlike for you or I, the end of the Second World War was fresh in everyone’s minds and memories at the time. That proximity is what also makes one of the central themes of the movie interesting: remembering.

The movie kicks off with the duo of Bob Wallace and Phil Davis performing a send-off for their beloved commander, Major General Thomas F. Waverly, who was relieved of his command. The lyrics they start with say:

We’ll follow the old man wherever he wants to go
As long as he wants to go opposite to the foe
We’ll stay with the old man wherever he wants to stay
As long he stays away from the battle’s fray
Because we love him, we love him
Especially when he keeps us on the ball
And we’ll tell the kiddies we answer duties’ call
With the grandest son of a soldier of them all

Later on in the movie, they sing the rest of the lyrics. The rest of the song is a nostalgic look back, telling a tale of how they wish they were back in the Army and what they missed about it.

Wallace and Davis, through the story, eventually end up in a hotel managed by Waverly in 1954, but the Inn is on the brink of bankruptcy, and the former major general has nothing left to sink into that venture. Even worse, when Waverly tries to get back into the military to help train up the next generation of soldiers, the Army rejects his bid and says they have no more use for him.

Wallace and Davis move their entire act to the Inn and invite all their old comrades to a unique production for Waverly. The explicit goal is to ensure that Waverly is reminded that he is loved and remembered by all his old soldiers. They’d drop everything they were doing to answer the call and honor him.

But think about the implications of this: The former soldiers of the 151st Division in World War II had to drop what they were doing to remember the leader they all loved. Despite being neck-deep in the aftermath of the Korean War and the growing Cold War conflict with the Soviet Union, the federal government had moved on from Waverly and that generation of leadership.

Less than a decade after the end of the war, the men who were leaders, who fought, and who bled as part of that war were in danger of being forgotten. Waverly’s own grandaughter had never seen her grandfather in his uniform. At the climax of the musical, when the song “White Christmas” is finally sung, the first lines have much more importance:

I’m dreaming of a white Christmas
Just like the ones I used to know

It’s not just about remembering the fondness of years past and the Christmas celebrations with friends and families. It’s about remembering the people of those moments — the Waverlys who seem to now be tossed aside and forgotten by the country they served.

If the generation of the Second World War thought it necessary to stop, remember, and recognize the people who led them to victory, who protected them, and who helped them emerge into the post-war period, less than 10 years after the end of hostilities, how much more incumbent upon us is it to do the same thing? That is what it means to look back before moving forward.

We know we’ll have challenges and things in 2022 that we can’t foresee now. That’s what it means to be human. But we don’t overcome those challenges by reinventing the wheel every time. We build on the shoulders of those before us; we build on the shoulders of our own Waverlys.

Let’s make sure to remember them in 2022.