Prov 17:22

A merry heart doeth good like a medicine... - Proverbs 17:22

Thursday, December 24, 2020

Just Like the Ones I Used to Know

 (Last in a 4-part series on popular Christmas songs)

On May 11, 1888, in the village of Tyumen, Russia, a baby was born to a Jewish couple by the name of Beilin. They named him Israel. In the mid-1890’s, the family fled the region to escape persecution of the Jewish community. They ended up in New York City and changed their surname to Baline.

A gifted musician, young Israel worked as a street singer in his teens, then a singing waiter. In 1907, at the age of 19, he published his first composition for a song called Marie From Sunny Italy. On the sheet music, Baline’s name was misspelled as “I. Berlin.” He decided to keep the name and was known as Irving Berlin from then on.

Berlin married Dorothy Goetz in 1912, but she died only months later from typhoid fever contracted on their honeymoon. Following this event, his compositions reflected his grief.

In 1925, he fell in love with an heiress named Ellin Mackay, but her father opposed the courtship because the Mackays were Catholic and Berlin was Jewish. Mackay sent his daughter away to Europe.

Again, Berlin’s loss inspired some beautiful tunes during their time apart. When Ellin returned to America, however, the couple eloped. More sadness followed. The Berlins lost their first child, Irving Berlin Jr., on Christmas Day in 1928. He was 24 days old. Three other children were born into their lifelong union. Ellin died in 1988. The following year, Irving died at 101.

Irving Berlin & the cast of White Christmas

I find it ironic that a Jewish man who did not celebrate Christmas wrote what became the most popular Christmas tune ever. The 1942 film Holiday Inn introduced White Christmas, sung in the film by Bing Crosby. His version is the best-selling single of all time. The movie won a 1943 Academy Award for the song. In 1954, Berlin’s creation became the title track of another Bing Crosby Christmas musical, White Christmas—a must-see on some folks’ December movie list every year.

The appeal of the song is clearly pure nostalgia. Written during WWII, it resonated with soldiers spending the holiday in hot climates and longing for home. This classic appeals to us now because we want our Christmas time to include snow, glistening treetops, sleigh bells, and Christmas cards…none of which have anything to do with the first Christmas. In fact, the Israelite baby born in a town in the middle of a desert probably didn’t experience any of those things for his entire 33 years on this planet.

Funny, isn’t it?

Far be it from me to criticize, though. In 2006 I wrote a stage script called Just Like the Ones I Used to Know. We performed the play several nights as part of the annual Christmas banquet at Portage Alliance Church. In 2010, the script was published by Eldridge Plays and Musicals. Since then, it’s been produced by 29 different groups around Canada and the USA (not counting any inevitable shysters who circumvent the proper registration and royalties process.) My play is a far stretch from any of Irving Berlin’s successes, but the story pulls at the heartstrings in a similar fashion as the characters remember the Christmases of their childhood. Now, every time I hear White Christmas, I think of the year we performed that play, the laughter and tears it brought to our audience, and the friends who breathed life into my characters. (Yes, I’m talking about you Nettie Neudorf, Preston Meier, Barb Knott, Melanie Ferg, Craig Smart, Evan Van Dongen, and Amy Geisbrecht.)

For my readers, I hope that hearing White Christmas this year will remind you of a not-so-white Christmas long ago when a little Jewish boy came to earth as nothing less than God with us.

Merry Christmas!


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