Tuesday, December 17, 2013

“Winter Wonderland”: A Hymn of the Persecuted Church. A Christmas Song Analysis

“Winter Wonderland” is one of those popular winter weather tunes that have made their way into our minds as “Christmas songs,” despite the complete lack of lyrical reference to the celebration of that holyday. But, lest we too hastily imagine that there is no religious content in it at all...

The 1934 lyrics to “Winter Wonderland,” by Richard B. Smith, are, in actuality, a sort of wintry “By the Rivers of Babylon” for cold war era Christians in communist countries – like the U.S.S.R. – who were unable to publicly practice their faith.

While it is unclear as to whether Smith was a religious person, his heart clearly reached out to the persecuted church. He penned these words while he was in a sanatorium with tuberculosis, and so he clearly knew something about being restricted.

The composer of the music was one Felix Bernard, who was born Jewish in New York City, and, while he didn’t contribute to the lyrics, no doubt also was immersed in his people’s history of persecution – and was therefore an ideal match for Smith’s lyrics.

Sleigh bells ring, are you listening?
In the lane snow is glistening

We note that, while it is winter, and nearing the holyday season, there are no church bells to be heard, but only sleigh bells. “The lane” is the road to the church building.  It glistens with snow, because no footprints mar the way. No one is permitted public religious expression, and so the church is sadly boarded-up and abandoned.

A beautiful sight, we’re happy tonight
Walking in a winter wonderland.

The meaning here is likely two-fold. First, it is the false attitude of happiness that these secret believers must wear, despite how their hearts must be breaking at the closing of the church. They must let no one know, however, that the untraveled lane saddens them, lest they be arrested for their faith. Secondly, they are – in fact – filled with joy, appreciating the beauty of Creation, and also because of where it is that they are walking TO. More on that in a moment.

Gone away is the bluebird
Here to stay is a new bird
He sings a love song as we go along
Walking in a winter wonderland.

The bluebird of happiness has flown away. No longer are public expressions of Christianity tolerated. They realize now how happy was their previous, un-persecuted state of affairs.

However, though outward happy times may have “gone away,” the “new bird” has come. Undoubtedly, this new bird is the dove, representative of the Holy Spirit, who sings peace, joy and “a love song” in their hearts, buoying them up in these difficult times. Again, there is the reference to walking, the destination of which trip we will now discover.

In the meadow we can build a snowman
Then pretend that he is Parson Brown
He’ll say, “Are you married?” We’ll say, “No man”
But you can do the job when you’re in town.

The apparently whimsical scene of building a snowman in the meadow hides a much darker meaning. In the communist pogroms, clergy have been rounded up and arrested. Churches have been closed. The believers are “happy tonight, walking in a winter wonderland” to a secret church service “in the meadow.” Lacking priest or pastor, they stand before a snowman, repeating their marriage vows. However, they swear to have a real church wedding when “Parson Brown,” their minister, is released from prison. Then, he can “do the job when” he’s “in town.”

Lumigyo Amnatovitch, a leading scholar on the persecuted Soviet church in the cold war era, suggests a bit of a different interpretation.

“The Snowman was a sort of renegade priest who performed the sacraments in secret outdoor services at night. Whether it was one man or a group of them will likely never be known. To the persecuted believers, he was simply “Father/Pastor Snowman.”

While most “respectable” repositories of knowledge reject this story outright, even Wikipedia has this to say about the alternate bridge lyrics:

The original bridge, about a couple who make a spur-of-the-moment decision to get married, was supposedly considered inappropriate for children. A 1953 version of the sheet music contains the following replacement bridge

In the meadow we can build a snowman,
and pretend that he’s a circus clown.
We’ll have lots of fun with Mister Snowman,
until the other kiddies knock ‘im down!
When it snows, ain’t it thrillin’?
Tho’ your nose, gets a chillin’
We’ll frolic and play, the Eskimo way,
Walkin’ in a Winter Wonderland.

In addition, the fact that (as noted above) the circuit-traveling country parson trekking from village to village is no longer part of the American cultural scene has also contributed to the circus clown replacing Parson Brown. (emphasis mine)
They won’t touch the theory that the song is about the persecuted church, of course, but they acknowledge that America’s own religious decline contributed to the rewrite!

Later on we’ll conspire
As we dream by the fire
To face unafraid, the plans that we’ve made
Walking in a winter wonderland

The underground congregation goes home, renewing their commitment to boldly hold on to their faith – and perhaps, are scheming a revolution to overthrow their persecutors!

--excerpted from Do you Hear What I Hear? The Stories
Behind Our Beloved Christmas Carols, by Allen S. Brain

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