Silver Bells — lessons in being American

One of my favorite movie scenes is the “Silver Bells” scene from the movie The Lemon Drop Kid. To me it as one of those all-American type scenes. And it is a scene that could never be made today.

The scene paints what some might call a Norman Rockwell type Christmas scene that the main characters wander through while singing “Silver Bells”, all to advance the plot of the movie. But this is in New York City, and most of the illustrations of Christmas are highly, sometimes subtly, ethnic. Those vignettes, especially the one with the Chinese kids, are why the scene could not be made. The stereotypes used would raise the hue and cry of racism, possibly sexism.

And yet that is what makes this all-American. All these people, all these backgrounds, sharing the common holiday, yet still with the flavors of their ethnic backgrounds, all as Americans. Sure, they are Polish, German, Chinese, Slavic, etc., but first and most importantly of all they are American. And they can be proud of it.

Today the hyphens and distinctions get bigger. Back in the Lemon Drop Kid days all those people would have become more and more American, would have dropped old world rivalries in the quest to be American.

Today, we encourage them to keep the old world connections, keep the distinctions, and not blend in. We think this is helping them preserve their heritage, getting rid of old stereotypes. But what we don’t realize is all that really happens is old stereotypes get replaced by new ones. People who would have been outsiders for awhile now become outsiders always. 

Sure, the old system wasn’t perfect, but the examples of why and how it wasn’t perfect show that the new was is not the best way. It didn’t always include groups; we ended up with ethnic enclaves like Chinatown in various cities. But this showed that encouraging ethnic enclaves means a failure, not a success of the system.

We want to be careful about looking at scenes from old movies, like the one that started this post, and feel that we are more superior than they are — look how far we’ve come, etc. — because, as this analysis shows, they achieved a lot of things that we are now unraveling and tearing down without even realizing it. Certainly is enough to cure me of Chronological Snobbery.

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