Not Your Average Christmas Program

It’s often strange, and sometimes downright scary, when you start poking around in the old memory bank. It’s never quite clear what you’re poking nor what may emerge from the past to confront you.

At the moment, I’m poking through childhood memories, particularly Christmas memories. Not unexpectedly, the first memory to emerge was of my all-time favorite toy, Marx’s classic Fort Apache. Searching the web, I found it must be the favorite toy of a lot of other men, too, because it‘s all over the net. Some people are even willing to pay way too much money for it, as if having the toy will actually bring back the past.

Strangely enough, though, after poking around for awhile I remembered something that I had no conscious memory of, though it turned out in the end to be a much more powerful memory. I started vaguely remembering an old Bing Crosby record my mother used to play until one day it vanished into that great trash heap in the sky, obviously placed next to the Happy Prince’s lead heart. Without a clue of what it was called, I invoked the magic of Google by searching on Bing Crosby and then grubbed through page after page of listings until I found a few entries that began to jog my memory.

Finally I discovered that the title of the recording was The Happy Prince and featured Bing Crosby and Orson Welles. As I read the online copy of Oscar Wilde’s tale, phrases and even whole lines jumped out at me. I was strangely moved as I reread the story, moved almost as strongly as I was when I had heard this tale as a child.

[STOP! Read the story at the above link now if you don’t want it ruined for you. It’s a very short “parable.”]

The tale begins with the statue of the Happy Prince telling the swallow his predicament.

`When I was alive and had a human heart,’ answered the statue, `I did not know what tears were, for I lived in the palace of Sans-Souci, where sorrow is not allowed to enter. … So I lived, and so I died. And now that I am dead they have set me up here so high that I can see all the ugliness and all the misery of my city, and though my heart is made of lead yet I cannot choose but weep.’ Alhough this seems remarkably similar to Prince Siddartha’s encounter with old age, sickness and death after living a protected life of wealth, the Happy Prince’s reaction to this discovery is quite different.

In short, the statue of the Happy Prince enlists the aid of a reluctant swallow to aid the poor, suffering people of the town. At the command of the statue, the swallow strips the statue of all its beautiful adornments and gives them to the poor.

The tragic ending of the parable is foreshadowed when the Prince commands the swallow to pluck out his last eye and give it to:

a little match-girl. She has let her matches fall in the gutter, and they are all spoiled. Her father will beat her if she does not bring home some money, and she is crying. She has no shoes or stockings, and her little head is bare

Finally, all his jewels gone, the Happy Prince strips himself of any last trappings of wealth. “I am covered with fine gold,” said the Prince, “you must take it off, leaf by leaf, and give it to my poor; the living always think that gold can make them happy.”

Although the prince has nothing left to give and the swallow should have long ago left for the south, he refuses to leave the Prince for “ he loved him too well.” Finally,

he kissed the Happy Prince on the lips, and fell down dead at his feet.

At that moment a curious crack sounded inside the statue, as if something had broken. The fact is that the leaden heart had snapped right in two.

The ironic image of the cracked leaden heart, like the Tin Man’s missing heart, is a particularly powerful image. In the end, only the heart shall endure. The callous town officials, not realizing the Happy Prince’s true worth, decide he must destroyed because “As he is no longer beautiful he is no longer useful.”

Luckily, when the broken lead heart will not melt, it ends up in the ash heap where the sparrow has been discarded. Even more fortunately, God has been watching the proceedings below:

`Bring me the two most precious things in the city,’ said God to one of His Angels; and the Angel brought Him the leaden heart and the dead bird.

`You have rightly chosen,’ said God, `for in my garden of Paradise this little bird shall sing for evermore, and in my city of gold the Happy Prince shall praise me.

Jewels and gold are valued because of their scarcity. Perhaps true love, particularly the unselfish love for our fellow man is, because of its rarity, even more precious.

I wonder what it says about our society that classics like this have disappeared to be replaced by “Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer” and “Frosty the Snowman?”

6 thoughts on “Not Your Average Christmas Program

  1. I had this recording since I was very young and broke it last year in a move to a new house. Do you know where I can get a copy? Thanks.

  2. I had this recording since I was very young and broke it last year in a move to a new house. Do you know where I can get a copy? Thanks.

  3. I have a badly scratched, childhood copy of the Decca recording, “The Happy Prince”, which I play to my 8th grade classes each year and every time, fight back the tears of this tremendously powerful, emotional story. I was looking to get a better copy on eBay, but haven’t seen one.

    I also have a 50+ year old, beloved book with 78 rpm records of “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer”. It has an important lesson for children as well.

  4. My story is almost Identicle, I listened to the album every christmas when I was a child, it was Narrated by Bing Crosby and it had a story of a young boy and his donkey on the other side. I would really like to make it a family tradition to listen to the two stories at christmas like when I was a child. if anyone knows where to get the album please notify me. thanks.

  5. I recently discovered this recording and was amazed by it. What is the second tale on the album?
    You can find the ‘Happy Prince’ on some editions of the DVD of ‘Citizen Kane'(Welles).

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