Friday, December 19, 2008

The Aggressive Ministerial Practices of One Parson Brown

People frequently misunderstand song lyrics, often with comedic results. I never misunderstood the lyrics to Winter Wonderland. I just misunderstood what they meant. Not knowing what a parson was, in my youth I believed "parson brown" meant a particular shade of brown, as with royal blue or hunter green.

What shade of brown might "parson" be? To my young ears, it sounded as if it were derived from the same root as the word "parched." Something parched, as you probably know, is dried out. So if you image a solid brown color, and then imagine what it would look like dried out and drained of its color, you'd have a pale, light brown. A pale, light brown that might describe the skin color of your average caucasian. Makes sense, doesn't it? Build a snowman in the meadow and pretend he's the color of a real dude!

When I was a kid, I took a lot of flack for that interpretation of the lyrics. I now believe I actually deserve a little credit for it. That's an intelligent, well-reasoned interpretation of what otherwise sounded like nonsense.

Yes, nonsense! When you're eight years old and you don't know what a parson is, that entire run of the song makes no sense at all. I now know a parson is a Protestant minister. With that knowledge, let's take a look at what's going on in this song...
"In the meadow we can build a snowman..."
Okay, so we're going to head on over to the meadow and build a snowman. I'm with you so far.
"Then pretend that he is Parson Brown..."
Stop! Right there, we're not making sense anymore. That is way too specific.

When you're a kid the whole point of building a snowman is to pretend it's a human. But unless you've got mad snow sculpting skills, you're never going to pretend it's someone you know. That's why you name him something stupid, like Frosty or Senor Gringoface. You may want to pretend that he can laugh and play just the same as you or myself, but you don't pretend he's a traveling minister.
"He'll say, 'Are you married?' We'll say, 'No, man.'
'But you can do the job when you're in town.'"
So Artificial Parson Brown proceeds to ask if you're married. That's a problem. Are these playful children who have built this snowman, or is it an infatuated young couple? Because if it's children, then things just got really lame, and this is why boys don't let girls play with them.

If it's the young couple, then things just got really awkward. They're flirting, giggling, playfully lobbing snowballs at each other. Then they build a snowman.

WOMAN
Let's pretend that this is Parson Brown.

MAN
Uhh... yeah, okay. That's a little strange, but sure.

Woman gets into character as the snowman.

WOMAN
(affected male voice)
Hey, you two. Are you married?

MAN
Oh, Jesus.

As herself...

WOMAN
(exaggerated gasp)
Why no, man, we're not.

MAN
Don't... don't do this.

WOMAN
(still exaggerated)
But if you wanted to perform a marriage
ceremony for us right now, I'm sure my
loving, adoring, committed boyfriend would
love to make me the happiest woman
on Earth right now. Wouldn't you, honey?

MAN
Why are you doing this? We were
having a good time.

... A fight ensues, and Christmas is ruined for everyone.

So, was there a real Parson Brown? If so, am I supposed to know who this guy was? If not, why is the song so specific about naming this character?


There was, in fact, a Parson Brown who lived in Florida in the 19th century. And as all people who live in Florida are required to do, he developed his own breed of orange. The Parson Brown orange has little fruit and a lot of seed, making it a less popular variety.

Was this the same Parson Brown who saw fit to accost and coerce into marriage random strangers in fields? It's unlikely. Winter Wonderland was written in 1934. Parson Brown was middle-aged and growing oranges in 1856, and was unlikely to be on the radar of song composers Felix Bernard and Richard B. Smith.

If this was a fictional character invented for the sake of the song, why is he given such a specific name? He's the only character in the entire song with a name, which makes him more prominent than even the song's narrator.

As Occam would have us believe, the simplest solution is probably the best. And also the most boring. The reason is...

Because it rhymes.

Well, that's a really unsatisfying explanation for something so perplexing to eight-year-olds. This holiday season, when singing Winter Wonderland in the presence of children, I recommend skipping the part about our dear friend Parson Brown and replacing it with the part about the circus clown.

...Notice that no one felt the need to name the clown?
"In the meadow we can build a snowman
"And pretend that he is George the Clown..."
"Who the hell is George?!"

Happy holidays, everyone.