"I'll Be Home for Christmas": Misrule and the Paradox of Gender in World War II-Era Christmas Films

Article excerpt

In the present circumstances many people are asking, ought we celebrate Christmas at all? There can be no doubt that this is the very year when we should think, not less, but more about Christmas -not only as an escape from the horrors of war, but as a remembrance of nobler ideals.

-Stefan Lorant, Picture Post, December 1939.

"Christmas isn't just a day. It's a frame of mind."

- Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street (1947).

In The Battle for Christmas, Stephen Nissenbaum argues that nineteenth-century middle-class culture recreated Christmas as a genteel celebration of the family home to contain and "civilize" a much longer tradition characterized by an unruly, carnivalesque celebration of disorder. Historically, at this time of year, traditional social categories had been inverted and mocked, and "ordinary behavioral constraints ... violated with impunity" (6): "During the Christmas season those near the bottom of the social order acted high and mighty. Men might dress like women, and women might dress (and act) like men.... A peasant or apprentice might become 'Lord of Misrule' and mimic the authority of a real 'gentleman'" (8).

By the early nineteenth century, the spread of wage industries, organized labor movements, and the threat of layoffs and unemployment meant that the "Christmas season, with its traditions of wassail, misrule and ... 'street theater' could easily become a vehicle for social protest" (Nissenbaum 52). Nissenbaum suggests that nineteenthcentury middle-class writers and artists sought to contain such carnivalesque appropriations of power, reimagining Christmas as a private homeand family-centered celebration of middle-class domesticity, effectively relocating the holiday from the street to the parlor, from the public sphere to private life.1 Indeed, the development of modern Christmas celebrations exemplifies what historian Eric Hobsbawm calls "the invention of tradition," the cultural production of new customs and celebrations, like Valentine's Day, as traditional, even ancient, observances, obscuring their contemporary construction by projecting their origins into the past. As Daniel Miller observes in "A Theory of Christmas," new media have continued to re-present this nineteenth-century invented tradition, "as we see with Christmas films or Christmas pop music" (4).

In the 1940s -a decade that produced many of today's most familiar holiday songs, films, and images-the invented tradition of a family-centered Christmas took on heightened significance as World War II disrupted American women's traditional roles as homemakers and wives, requiring them to act as wartime wage earners and heads of households, as well as combatants on a newly formed ideological "home front."2 This article traces how American popular culture negotiated and contained the resulting cultural tensions and conflicts within the mediating space of Christmas by examining four holiday-themed films that span the war era: Remember the Night (1940), The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942), Christmas in Connecticut (1945), and Miracle on 34th Street (1947). As popular examples of the popular genre of romantic comedy, these films invoke the cultural logic of Christmas as what Fredric Jameson has called a "strategy of containment" (53) symbolically delimiting and defusing the norm-challenging "misrule" necessitated by an economy and society mobilizing for war, when women were suddenly called upon to set aside social and sexual norms by entering the workforce in unprecedented numbers. By asserting the invented domesticating traditions of Christmas, these films function as a means of "inventing imaginary or formal 'solutions' to unresolvable social contradictions" (Jameson 79) between the accepted female identity defined by domestic ideology and the long-term consequences of American women's wartime experiences in which they assumed traditionally male roles and responsibilities in both the private and public spheres. …