After an accumulation of research, brainstorming and planning, Gonzaga history students and Ray Rast, department of history professor, have released a new, virtual history exhibit “A Christmas Classic” this holiday season.
The exhibit explores mastermind songwriter Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” and the song’s impact on America through the years. Additionally, the exhibit shows how America, from colonial until present time, has historically celebrated Christmas. By combining concepts of both themes, viewers can conceptualize how massive Berlin’s song’s impact has been on American Christmas traditions.
Exhibit visitors can explore six different sections and a conclusion: “Irving Berlin and His American History,” “The Creation of ‘White Christmas’,” “Christmas in America Before the 1940s,” “Supporting the War Effort,” “A New Era of Christmas Entertainment,” “An Americanized Christmas Tradition” and “The Best Song Anybody Ever Wrote.”
In recognition of the significance of Bing Crosby, who starred in the 1954 film “White Christmas,” Rast, suggested the idea of an exhibit featuring Crosby to his public history course back in 2017. In collaboration with other public history students, Cole Fairbairn, who graduated from GU in 2019, created the concept and is listed as an author of the exhibit.
After pitching the idea to the College of Arts and Sciences, Fairbarin received the Morris Undergraduate Research Fellowship and continued research and development of the exhibit concept with Rast summer 2017.
Unable to complete as much research as they hoped, the project remained on hold until the 2020 spring semester when Rast once again taught a public history course.
Mary Cate Babcock, who was a student in Rast’s spring 2020 course, worked as an intern for Rast over the summer and into the 2020 fall semester. She researched and completed a majority of the sections while keeping in touch with Rast via Zoom meetings.
Babcock said Berlin’s identity as a Jewish immigrant songwriter being the mastermind behind such a widely loved Christmas song, speaks volumes regarding the evolution of American ideals.
“He’s [Berlin] written on of the greatest Christmas songs,” Babcock said. “Talking about the Americanization of Christmas and secularization, it [Christmas] has become more American and also more inclusive for people, like Irving Berlin, who are Jewish and celebrate Christmas can still listen to Christmas songs like “White Christmas” and relate to wanting to be with family.”
Rast said that the timing of the song along with the movie’s release in 1942 is fundamental in the powerful message conveyed.
“Suddenly tens of millions of Americans who were listening to the song and thinking about the message it conveyed about longing for the peaceful Christmases of the past and dreaming about peaceful Christmases in the future,” Rast said. “It’s one of the many songs that we hear on the radio but understanding why it resonated in that context is really important.”
Rast said that the message of the song is especially significant given the reality we currently face during COVID-19. For millions of Americans, the reality of Christmas 2020 is facing the loss of a family member to COVID-19 or being separated from family members during the holidays.
Berlin’s “White Christmas” gave comfort to those in World War II who were unable to celebrate the holidays with family given the sacrifices made for the betterment of our country.
“Maybe we can take some comfort in that, thinking about the song, that time period and about what we are doing today,” Rast said. “It is difficult that we do make sacrifices, but we can do it and we should do it. And if we do it, we can get through it.”
Rast said he hopes GU students will take away appreciation of the history of American traditions and how our values change over time. Additionally, he hopes the exhibit will provide insight to GU students who often forget of Crosby, as well as musical genius Berlin.
Babcock said that she hopes viewers will gain a greater appreciation for niche history, like the history of “White Christmas,” and for those at the university that put so much time and effort into projects like this exhibit.
Rast, Babcock and contributors aim to extend the exhibit beyond its current virtual format and install a physical exhibit within the Crosby house by the 2021 holiday season. They envision an interactive exhibit with touchscreen monitors and other multi-media features.
To learn more about Irving, Crosby and “White Christmas,” visit the “A Christmas Classic” exhibit website: https://achristmasclassic.org