One of the most well known Christmas songs is “Winter Wonderland”. It is a familiar song that your relatives may have sung while Christmas caroling, or you might have sung in a school choir. The story behind “Winter Wonderland” is one that not everyone is aware of.
The origins of “Winter Wonderland” start in Honesdale, Pennsylvania. A local man named Richard Smith wrote a poem in 1934. He was in the West Mountain Sanitarium being treated for tuberculosis. While being treated, he entered contests for jingles and ads for companies. Richard Smith’s sister, Marjorie W. Smith, claimed her brother was inspired by the beauty of the freshly fallen snow in the park when he wrote the “Winter Wonderland” poem.
Tuberculosis was also called consumption. It was a highly contagious disease that primarily affected the lungs but also caused other body tissue to waste away. It was the most common cause of death throughout the 19th century. In the 1920’s and 1930’s, people bought Christmas Seals (stamps) that had images of Santa Claus on them. The money from the stamps went to National Tuberculosis Association.
“Winter Wonderland” mentions Parson Brown. He was a made up character intended to represent parsons. A parson was an independent priest of the Protestant faith who was not associated with any specific parishes or churches. At the time the poem was written, parsons traveled through the country performing interdenominational services and ceremonies when no one else was available to do so.
In 1934, Richard Smith showed his “Winter Wonderland” poem to his friend Felix Bernard. He was a Jewish musician who was touched by Richard Smith’s poem. He set out to compose a melody to go along with the poem. (Many Christmas songs were written and/or composed by Jewish musicians.)
Sadly, Richard Smith died in 1935, at the age of 34. Some reports say he died before he could hear the music Felix Bernard made for “Winter Wonderland”. Other reports say Richard Smith lived long enough to hear Guy Lombard and his orchestra, the Royal Canadians, perform his song the Christmas before he died.
The Wayne County Historical Society placed a marker outside Richard Smith’s childhood home on Church Street, in Honesdale, Pennsylvania. The location is now a law office. Every year, the Greater Honesdale Parnership (a local business group) has an Annual Santa Parade that starts at Main Street and ends at Central Park. A DJ from the local radio station reads a short story about Richard Smith and points to the songwriter’s childhood home, where a lighted Christmas tree sits in his bedroom window.
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