Why Would You Name a Snowman “Parson Brown”?

Christmastime is, among many other things, known for its seasonal music. From Thanksgiving until Christmas itself, some radio stations play nothing but Jingle Bells, All I Want For Christmas is You, Santa Claus is Coming to Town, and the like. There’s even a game you can play each year called “Whamageddon,” where the goal is to not hear the song “Last Christmas” by Wham! from December 1st through Christmas Eve. (I tried it a few years ago and succeeded; I didn’t this year but would have failed because a local radio presenter intentionally played the song to cause listeners to lose.) And then there’s “Winter Wonderland.”

If you’re not familiar with the song, you can listen to the Bing Crosby version here. But you’re probably familiar with it. It was originally written by composer Felix Bernard and lyricist Richard Bernhard Smith in 1934, and since then, more than 200 different artists have covered the song. The song is originally was about a young couple’s winter romance, but a 1947 version makes it more kid-friendly and focuses on children playing in the snow. Either way, though, there’s one lyric that may seem weird to you:

In the meadow we can build a snowman
We’ll 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

Parson Brown? Who’s that? And why would you pretend that the snowman is him? Glad you asked.

It’s not at all uncommon for songs to namecheck famous people — you can probably think of a half-dozen examples off the top of your head. (Just in case you can’t, though, here’s a very incomplete list.) And given that it’s now 2023, we can be forgiven for forgetting about a person who was famous in 1934 but isn’t today. But Parson Brown wasn’t a famous person — in fact, his Wikipedia entry redirects readers to the entry for Winter Wonderland. Outside of the song, Parson Brown doesn’t exist, at least not outside of the community Smith was from.

That’s probably because “Parson” isn’t the snowman’s first name, but rather, his title. “Parson,” according to Merriam-Webster, is a synonym for “clergyman” and typically refers to a Protestant pastor. If you haven’t heard it used that way, don’t worry — it wasn’t all that common of a term even in 1934. According to Google’s Book Ngram Viewer, usage of the term has dropped off significantly since the early 1900s and it wasn’t all that popular to begin with. That’s because parsons weren’t the priests that we’re familiar with today. As Wikipedia notes, “a parson was the priest of an independent parish church, that is, a church not under the control of a larger ecclesiastical or monastic organization.” And, as a result, they traveled from town to town, offering clergy services as needed.

While the practice of itinerant priests faded in the 1800s, they were still around, somewhat, particularly in rural parts of America. And while we don’t know much about Richard Bernhard Smith, he probably experienced that during his brief time on Earth. Smith was born in Honesdale, Pennsylvania in 1901, which at the time had a population of just under 3,000 people (and today only has about 4,500 residents), and after a bout with tuberculosis in 1931, died in 1935 — and was buried in Honesdale. We don’t know much about him or his life, but, likely, marriages in Honesdale were often performed by pastors from the surrounding area as needed.

As for “Brown,” well, that part is easier. There is no evidence of a notable priest with that specific name at the time, and most likely, Smith chose “Brown” because it rhymes with “town.” 

Bonus fact: In 1980, RSO Records, best known as the record label for the Bee Gees, released an album titled “Christmas in the Stars: Star Wars Christmas Album.” It sold about 150,000 copies but RSO shut down before a second printing could be issued, so there’s a good chance you’ve never heard anything from it. If you haven’t, you’re missing out on an odd piece of history: one of the songs is famed rock star Jon Bon Jovi’s first professional recording — but only by a weird coincidence. Domenico Monardo, the producer of the album, explained what happened to Star Wars fan site TheForce.net: “My co-producer was Tony Bongiovi. Jon Bon Jovi was his little cousin and by little I mean we were all in our 30s and early 40s but Jon at that time was 17 years old. [. . . ] You have his little cousin who was on salary sweeping the floors [at the studio]. And I was stuck on this one song. I had three different people come in to sing it and I didn’t like the way any of them sounded. Tony says to me, ‘Why don’t you try little Jon?’. Well, all right, let’s try him. And after just the first few notes out of his mouth, I said, ‘Yes! This is him. This is the one!'” The song, “R2-D2 We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” is available on YouTube; Jon Bon Jovi sings about 45 seconds in.

From the Archives: The Nefarious Downside of White Christmas: Retail workers, beware!