In countries with seasonal climates and cold winters, no other song conjures up images of the joys of freshly fallen snow quite like the easy melody and cheerful lyrics of “Winter Wonderland”. Although originally not intended to be a Christmas song, the piece has become intricately tied to the holidays, making it one of the great classics that has been interpreted by numerous famous artists.
Despite its upbeat character, the story behind this hugely popular song is anything but joyful. In a particularly cold and long winter during the early 1930's, a young man named Richard Smith who had been suffering from the then still widespread and devastating disease of tuberculosis found himself in a home in Pennsylvania recovering from yet another bout of the deadly infection. Days were long and spent in the comfort of his room, daydreaming about a normal and healthy life that would enable him to play outside in the snow like the children he was observing from his window. This innocent scene inspired the young man to write a beautiful poem, invoking the carefree fun of a day in the snow. Smith even worked a bit of local flavor into his poem when he mentioned “Parson Brown” - a reference to parsons, or independent priests of the Protestant faith who were not associated with any specific parishes or churches. Back in those days, they often traveled through the country performing interdenominational services and ceremonies when nobody else was available to do so.
Happy with the result, Smith showed the lyrics to his friend and musician Felix Bernard in 1934. Touched by his sick friend's lovely poem which clearly expressed his desire to flee the limitations his illness had put upon him, Bernard immediately set to work at composing a melody to go along with the words. Sadly, Smith never really saw the fruits of his work as he passed away ravaged by the disease at the young age of 34, a year after Bernard wrote the unforgettable music to Smith's poem.
Felix Bernard, however enjoyed much fame in the years following what would be the first of countless recordings. Born Felix William Bernhardt in 1897 in New York City, he was a child prodigy playing the piano and after completing his musical education earned a living by composing pieces for various vaudeville establishments as well as accompanying orchestras on the piano. Eventually, he founded his own band. He died in 1944.
Rise to Fame
In 1934, Joey Nash who performed with Richard Himber got a hold of Bernard's latest song, and it did not take long for before it made its recording debut on RCA Bluebird. The recording featured vocals by Nash who was accompanied by Himber and his Hotel Ritz Carlton Orchestra. December 1934 saw another release of Winter Wonderland, this time by the hugely popular Guy Lombardo and his orchestra, taking it to the top of the charts for the first time. A decade later, Perry Como landed yet another smash hit with his interpretation of the Christmas song, followed by a long list of favorite artists who did their own take, including Pat Boone, Paul Anka, Frank Sinatra, Barry Manilow, Bing Crosby, and Elvis Presley to name just a few.