Songs of Christmas…Walking in a Winter Wonderland

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Sometimes in life’s most difficult moments great things can happen. Sometimes in those difficult moments some seemingly small thing can happen that brings us joy and possibly even a new lease on life.

Such was the case for Richard B. “Dick” Smith. When Smith was 30 years old, just a year after he and his wife married, he was diagnosed with tuberculosis. He was dying and he knew it. He was dying without having written a significant song. Three years later he found himself in a sanitarium in Scranton Pennsylvania. He was technically there for treatment, but he knew he had gone there to die.

The disease left him weak, in pain and at times overcome with coughing attacks that left him worn out. The idea of writing at all seemed impossible. Yet on a cold afternoon in 1934 Smith pulled himself out of bed and made his way to his room’s window which looked out over a city park. There he saw several children playing in the snow. It took him back to his own childhood and made him want to venture out to play in the snow himself. He saw them have a snowball fight and then watched them work together to build a snowman.

When the light of day faded away and the children left the park headed for home, Smith made his way to the table in his room’s table. Though it was extraordinarily difficult to do so, he forced himself to write down his thoughts. Within a few hours he had written a poem he thought was special by the title of, “Walking in a Winter Wonderland.”

The poem actually gave Smith new life. He recovered enough to leave the sanitarium and he made his way to visit a composer/pianist named Felix Bernard (a man of the Jewish faith). The two had been friends for a long time. When Bernard looked at Smith’s poem, he also recognized it as something special. Bernard knew if he could come up with the right kind of tune, it could be very special for his friend. Bernard began a mission to help his friend have a hit song.

Bernard’s tune was an upbeat number and when it was complete, Smith and Bernard started trying to shop it around. Not too many people paid attention but Joey Nash found a copy of the song. Nash was the lead singer for the Richard Himber Orchestra. He took the song to his boss and while the orchestra had an upcoming recording session, Himber thought they had enough music already. They ended up making a quick recording of “Winter Wonderland” in the summer of 1934. RCA released the song a few weeks later.

One person who heard to recording was Guy Lombardo, who recorded the song with his “Royal Canadians.” Because Lombardo was well known, it was his recording that shot up the charts. Smith had his hit record, with Lombard’s recording moving all the way up to number 2.

The song was a hit a second time in 1935 but Smith died in the fall, a few months before the winter songs started to gain airtime again. He would never know the great hit that was “Winter Wonderland.”

Since that time more than 200 different artists have recorded the song in a wide variety of styles. From Perry Como and the Andrew’s Sisters to Dolly Parton and Elvis Presley to the Eurythmics and Ozzy Osborne, the song has seen a huge variation in styles.

There are a couple of interesting things about the song. First of all, while we consider the song a Christmas song, Christmas is never actually mentioned in the lyrics. Like “Jingle Bells” and “Sleigh Ride,” we consider “Winter Wonderland” a Christmas song because it is a winter song. Christmas is not mentioned in any of the three songs.

Second, the lyrics mention the snowman being “Parson Brown.” At the time Smith wrote the lyrics the word “parson” was in common use and people knew its meaning. In the 1950s there was a fear that people would not understand the meaning so the whole marriage idea that plays an important role in the song was removed and a “circus clown” entered in its place. During the 1960s artists returned to “Parson Brown.” There have also been a few versions of the song that feature both “Parson Brown” and a “circus clown.”

There has also been a comedy parody of the song titled, “Walking in My Winter Underwear.” It was actually this song that had me looking at “Walking in a Winter Wonderland.” I sing with a men’s chorus named “The Coastalaires.” One of our songs for our Christmas show was “Walking in My Winter Underwear,” written by Melinda Root and Fannie Zollicoffer. As I researched it I didn’t find anything about the story behind the song. What I did find was, the song was recorded by Stan Borenson. At the time there was a television show named, “Lunch with Casey,” staring Casey Jones. In one episode, Jones dresses in rather battered red long underwear with a huge mustache and lip synced to Borenson’s recording. Someone took offense to either the song or Jones’ attire (or possibly both) and called the station to complain. Jones made an on-air apology on the next episode. That caused the switchboards to light up and hundreds called talking about how funny it was and didn’t see anything offensive at all. The act became a regular performance for Jones each Christmas.

It was a beloved song that truly came close to never being written. I would like to think God had Dick Smith get out of his bed to see those children at play. Because he did and even through his pain, wrote it all down, we have a song so many of us love and enjoy each year.

Have a blessed day in the Lord.

Joy and Peace,
Keith

Copyright 2016, J. Keith Broyles, All Rights Reserved

Sources:

Collins, Ace, Stories Behind the Best Loved Songs of Christmas, Grand Rapids: Zondervan2001.

Collins, Andrew, Stories Behind the Greatest Hits of Christmas, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010.

Gant, Andrew, The Carols of Christmas: A Celebration of the Surprising Stories Behind Your Favorite Holiday Songs, Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2015.

Osbeck, Kenneth W. Joy to the World: The Stories Behind Your Favorite Christmas Carols, Grand Rapids: Kregal, 1999.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Winter_Wonderland

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Felix_Bernard

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_B._Smith

Author:

Spirita Spiro (Esperanza for "Spirit's Breath) is rather new in my life. But the blog is not. I began writing a blog several years ago. It lived under the title, "The Pastor Ponders." Over the years I have tried several different names and "The Pastor Ponders" always seemed to fit best. I am trying again with Spirita Spiro. For 27 years I was a full-time pastor in the United Methodist Church. This year, August 2018, I semi-retired (I can't actually retire quite yet) and began teaching social studies. It is something I have always wanted to do and if I was going to do this, I needed to make it sooner rather than later. So, I made the move. I thought with the career change there also needed to be a name change to the blog and other things, such as spiritual direction. Spirita Spiro is my attempt to share some of my thoughts. I often share what I am thinking with my dog "Bishop," but he keeps his thoughts to himself. He will even go to sleep sometimes while I am sharing my thoughts with him. The truth is, if it doesn't involve getting his ears scratched, his belly rubbed or some kind of treat, he really doesn't care. I will say this for him, he never argues with me or tells me I am wrong. So, I decided to share some of my thoughts with whoever might come across this blog in their ramblings around the Internet. I live with my wife Cindy and our little dog in Lufkin, Texas. I spent the past 27 years as a full-time United Methodist pastor. Most recently I served as pastor of First United Methodist Church in Sweeny, Texas. I have also served United Methodist congregations throughout East Texas including rural Madison County (Elwood UMC), Lovelady (First UMC) and Kennard (Center Hill UMC), Canton (First UMC), rural Smith County (Mt. Sylvan UMC and Union Chapel UMC), Grapeland (First UMC), Tyler (Pleasant Retreat UMC), Santa Fe (Aldersgate UMC), Freeport (First UMC) and Oyster Creek (Oyster Creek UMC), Diboll (First UMC), and now Sweeny (First UMC). My wife Cindy and I have been married for over 40 years. We have two grown sons. Wayne and his wife Nikki and all our grandsons (Kaleb, Noah, and Jaxon) live in Southern California. Christopher and his wife Morgan and both our granddaughters (Jenna and Natalie) live in Tyler Texas. I enjoy preaching and all aspects of preaching from research to writing to the actual preaching event. I also love writing, reading, playing the guitar as well as a bit of drawing. I have spent quite a bit of time over the past two years working with paracord on various projects, mostly prayer ropes I usually give away. I sing bass with a local barbershop chorus called The Coastalaires. I have also recently begun doing a little wood carving. I also enjoy playing with Bishop, something he likes a great deal better than listening to my thoughts. I hold an Associate of Applied Science Degree in Business Data Processing, specializing in Microcomputers from San Jacinto College in Pasadena, Texas, a Bachelor of Science in Political Science with a minor in History from Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, TX, a Master of Divinity from Southern Methodist University in Dallas, TX and a Doctor of Ministry from Carolina University of Theology. When I was a student at Carolina, the school was in Iron Station North Carolina. They have since relocated to Manassas Virginia (Yeah, go figure, a school named Carolina geographically in Virginia). This blog is mostly devotional writing, but there are other things here too. Just about every week I will either post my sermon manuscript or a video of the worship service. On occasion, I will post something I see in society. Occasionally I write a short story, a poem, or a song and will post it here too. I will say this, my motivations for writing this blog are really selfish. I write it to get what I am thinking out of my head and onto something a bit more permanent. They say, after all, once something is on the internet it never really goes away. Still, I hope you enjoy reading it. And, should you desire, you can one-up Bishop and actually tell me what you think. Who knows, it might generate a bit of discussion between you and me and anyone else who might make their way here. With Joy and Thankfulness, Keith Sweeny, Texas May 2018

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