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Tuesday, July 26, 2022

July 26, 2022: Christmas (Songs) in July: “Winter Wonderland” and “Jingle Bells”

[On July 30, 1942, Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” was released. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy Crosby’s classic and other Christmas and holiday songs, for a little flavor of the season here in mid-summer!]

On the two versions of the holiday revealed by two 1930s hits.

Pinning down the “first” version of classic Christmas songs can sometimes be an exercise in historical ambiguity to be sure. While jazz legend Benny Goodman and his orchestra put out a very early and justifiably famous recording of “Jingle Bells” in 1935, for example, the lyrics to that classic carol go back much further, at least to James Lord Pierpont’s 1857 song “The One Horse Open Sleigh” (that Pierpoint was sufficiently dreaming of a white Christmas that he would go on to serve in and write marching songs for the Confederate army is just one of those profoundly American ironies). But nonetheless, Goodman’s recording is an important milestone in the song’s development into an American holiday anthem—and that 1935 timing coincidentally locates “Jingle Bells” in close proximity to a Christmas classic with timing that we can pin down much more concretely: “Winter Wonderland,” which was written in 1934 by composer Felix Bernard and lyricist Richard B. Smith and recorded that same year by Guy Lombardo and His Royal Canadians.

Moreover, the two songs are connected by more than just that close chronological proximity. “Wonderland” opens with the lines “Sleigh bells ring, are you listening?/In the lane, snow is glistening,” locating its speaker and audience in very much the same world as the “we” who in “Jingle Bells” are “Dashing through the snow/In a one-horse open sleigh” with its “bells on bobtails ring[ing].” Given that “Wonderland” was written in the 1930s, a time when automobile horns were much more likely to be heard on most American lanes than sleigh bells—even in more rural America, the dominance of the car had certainly arrived by this time—that opening reference would seem to be a purposeful anachronism, a throwback to a 19th century world when it was most likely a horse-drawn sleigh that would carry us to holiday gatherings. Neither Bernard (born in 1897) nor Smith (born in 1901) had necessarily experienced that world, at least not in its prime, so it’s fair to say that the “beautiful sight” of that opening chorus (repeated in the song’s final chorus) is in their mind’s eye, this imagined version of the wintry holiday world of “Jingle Bells” and its ilk.

While they thus start in a very similar place, however, “Jingle Bells” and “Winter Wonderland” ultimately take very different tacks, reflecting two distinct cultural meanings of the holiday. “Jingle Bells” stays entirely in its present moment—it’s not only “fun to ride and sing/A sleighing song tonight,” but the song itself metatextually (perhaps the first time that word has ever been applied to “Jingle Bells”; that’s why they pay me the big bucks) and thoroughly locates its listeners within that nighttime sleigh ride. This is a celebration of the holiday’s relaxing and rejoicing qualities, of how living in the moment can “mak[e] spirits bright.” “Winter Wonderland,” on the other hand, starts with its two lovebirds “happy tonight” as well, but it soon and consistently makes clear that it is the future about which they are most excited, particularly in the song’s best verse: “Later on, we’ll conspire/As we dream by the fire/To face unafraid/The plans we have made/Walking in a winter wonderland.” This is the version of the holidays where, as one year ends and another begins, we can reflect on where we’ve been (“the bluebird”), greet what’s to come (“a new bird”), and walk together into a new year that just might be better than the last.

Next holiday song tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other holiday songs you’d analyze?

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