Battle-weary soldiers sit with their heads down or with faraway looks on their deeply etched faces; quiet, contemplative, their guns nestled in their laps. Tough guys.
Nevertheless, tears trickle down many cheeks and drip onto the barrels of their rifles. Some soldiers try to furtively wipe them away. Others sit stoically, their glistening tears a tribute to their longing.
The crooner on the makeshift stage, in a rich bass voice, sings, “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas / Just like the ones I used to know / Where the treetops glisten / And children listen / To hear sleigh bells in the snow ...”
Soon, in the background, large guns begin to boom. The soldiers take up their weapons, grim-faced, determined, seeking cover as shells scream to the earth, wreaking havoc on the improvised theater that was, for a moment, a place cradling memories of home and loved ones, of all they hold dear.
The scene opens the movie "White Christmas," with Bing Crosby on stage singing Irving Berlin’s beloved song of the same name. Fiction, perhaps — yet wholly in keeping with the experience of hundreds of thousands of 1944 war-weary Allied soldiers as they slogged their way toward Berlin and the end of a world war that cost nearly 50 million lives.
A number of iconic Christmas songs were released during the war years, many still popular today: "White Christmas," "I’ll Be Home for Christmas," "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" and "The Christmas Song" (written in 1944, released in 1946). Lovers of Christmas music sometimes note that while these songs speak of “Christmas,” the name Jesus Christ is never mentioned. Yet this does not mean they do not reflect the deeper meaning of Christmas and Christ’s advent to earth on that solemn spring day that Christians worldwide reverence still.
Each song speaks poignantly, longingly, of love and of home, inextricably intertwined with memories of family, friends and the joy that is Christmas. Was it not the message of the Savior of the world, manifest throughout his life, that we love one another?
Consider Christ’s life: The Christ child was born in the small village of Bethlehem, in Judea, in a stable. He was born to poor parents. Yet his parents loved him, tenderly regarded him, cared for him and instructed him in the law.
Though the record of his youthful years is mostly silent, we know that Jesus taught the learned “doctors of the Law” in the temple in Jerusalem, “And all that heard him were astonished at his understanding and answers” (Luke 2:46-47). Thereafter, “Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man,” until, at age 30, the Savior of the world began his public ministry (Luke 2:52).
He taught — in word and deed — simply and profoundly: love one another. No one is to be exempt from our love, “Love ye your enemies, and do good, and lend, hoping for nothing again; and your reward shall be great, and ye shall be the children of the Highest: for he is kind unto the unthankful and to the evil” (Luke 6:35).
Jesus extols followers in his Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are the meek ... the merciful ... the pure in heart ... the peacemakers ... It hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbor, and hate thine enemy. I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven” (Matthew 5:5, 7, 8, 9, 43-45).
While Jesus boldly taught that he was the Savior of the world, “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no man cometh unto the Father, but by me,” he complemented this declaration with another. To his apostles and all who would be disciples, he cautioned, “This is my commandment, That ye love one another, as I have loved you. ... These things I command you, that ye love one another” (John 15:12, 17).
In "I’ll Be Home for Christmas," the vocalist sings of love and family: “I am dreaming tonight of a place I love / Even more than I usually do / And although I know it’s a long road back / I promise you / I’ll be home for Christmas / ... Christmas Eve will find me / Where the love light gleams / I’ll be home for Christmas / If only in my dreams.”
"Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas" reflects on Christ, home and friends, “Let your heart be light / ... Here we are as in olden days / Happy golden days of yore. / Faithful friends who are dear to us / Gather near to us once more / Through the years we all will be together / If the fates allow / Hang a shining star upon the highest bough / And have yourself a merry little Christmas now.”
"The Christmas Song" exudes warmth and love, recalling, “Yuletide carols being sung by a choir / ... Tiny tots with their eyes all aglow / ... And so I'm offering this simple phrase / To kids from 1 to 92 / Although it's been said many times, many ways / Merry Christmas to you."
While the horror of World War II tore at the fabric of societies and civilizations, it also reminded many of that which mattered most, of that which is enduring and eternal. World War II Christmas music captures the simple but profound truth that God and Christ love us and that we, as Christ’s disciples, ought to love one another.
Kristine Frederickson writes on issue-oriented topics that affect members of the LDS Church worldwide in her column “LDS World." She teaches part time at BYU. Her views do not necessarily represent those of BYU.