While it’s a common complaint that holiday traditions and stories have become too commercialized, this beloved tale actually began as a commercial gimmick.
Robert May created the concept of a misfit reindeer in 1939 at the behest of his employer, the Montgomery Ward department store in Chicago. Ward’s had traditionally given a free coloring book to children at holiday time. That year, store executives decided it would be more cost-effective to create an original children’s book in-house. They didn’t know exactly what they wanted, but had the notion it should be an animal story with a main character like Ferdinand the Bull. They gave Robert May, a 35 year-old Jewish copywriter, the project because he was known for his witty impromptu party limericks. As creative and well-suited to penning this poem as May was, the timing couldn’t have been worse. His young wife was dying of cancer, most of his meager salary was going to her medical treatments, and he had a four year-old daughter, Barbara to raise. Several months into the manuscript, May’s wife died, and his boss offered to take the project off his hands. By then attached to the work-in-progress, May refused to let it go. He continued to work on the story by night, using Barbara as a sounding board.
When he first presented his concept, it fell flat with the corporate executives who pointed out that bulbous red noses were associated with alcoholism. Not willing to relent, May convinced his friend and coworker, illustrator Denver Gillen, to create an adorable, child-friendly character. After a number of research trips to the Lincoln Park Zoo, the story came to life in pictures, and Montgomery Ward gave the project the green light. (Click here to view that original, handwritten, illustrated manuscript.) The first year, more than two million copies Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer were handed out and the public fell in love with the story. The verses best come to life when read aloud, as in the video below.
Although the story of Rudolph was “work for hire,” and therefore belonged to Montgomery Ward, the corporation allowed the rights to the intellectual property to revert to Robert May after he fell upon hard financial times. His brother-in-law, songwriter Johnny Marks then wrote new verses for the story, set it to music, persuaded Gene Autry to record it, and it became a hit. The song’s success paved the way for many more commercially successful ventures including the 1964 animated TV special starring Burl Ives.
Robert May eventually remarried a coworker, converted to Catholicism, and had five more children. He left Montgomery Ward because managing Rudolph became a lucrative full-time job. May died in 1976, but his Christmas story lives on. True to the song, Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer has, indeed, gone down in history!
This essay begins with a story about the American frontier—one that most of you may already know—and I’d like to use it to try to explain why it is that we remember a few particular 19th Century humorists and NOT the 30 or 40 others who were also writing and publishing popular work during the pre-Civil War years and later.
Post-Revolutionary War America was a place of constantly shifting frontiers both to the west and to the south. In a given year, the western frontier might be Upstate New York and gradually moving westward, with the southern frontier in Virginia gradually moving further and further south; in later years, it became anything west of the Mississippi River as the influx of population pushed the borders westward and southward. In order to understand the humor that comes out of these liminal (border) spaces, one needs to think just a bit about what the frontier(s) were, how things operated there, and who migrated to those spaces. As the “new” settlements became more populated and the opportunities for jobs and wealth became less plentiful, pioneers moved further south and west in search of prosperity. Typically, we think of these folks as the rugged individualists who brought their skills and strength to bear on carving civilization out of the wilderness. In many cases, this was true.
However, in addition to the skilled laborers and farmers, the frontiers also attracted a seedier element–the con man and the pettifogger, the liar and the cheat, the gambler and the speculator–into these newly settled territories. Often they were one step ahead of criminal charges, lynching, or tar-and-feathering, and searching for a fresh start somewhere where they were an unknown quantity, and where new victims for their fraud were readily available. Given the nature of boom-towns on the frontier, it stands to reason that these would serve as topics for humor writers who inhabited that space.
These borderlands—primarily Georgia, Louisiana, and Alabama for the purposes of this study—are the regions from which those authors we call the Southwestern humorists sprang and flourished. When we speak of these humorists today, three or four of them remain and stand in for the whole of southwestern humor from 1830-1865 or so. Thomas Bangs Thorpe, for example, is still often anthologized and read in high schools and colleges occasionally. His “Big Bear of Arkansas” survives as a representative of the rough and ready braggart type of the American frontier. His language is a bit crude, his story quite exaggerated, and its conclusion a bit off-color. George Washington Harris’s Sut Lovingood tales are also occasionally anthologized. Students still respond to Sut with a mixture of horror and fascination, and most of the tales—“Parson John Bullen’s Lizards” comes to mind—demonstrate written slapstick humor at its best; and Sut’s character, while not exactly a con man, walks a fine line between “good fun” and that which is legal and/or moral. Similarly, Johnson J. Hooper’s Simon Suggs remains a memorable and sometimes anthologized character in American humor. If Sut often straddles the line between propriety and crudity, Simon Suggs broad-jumps that line, happily defrauding the country folk and slaves at every opportunity. His tag line is: “It is good to be shifty in a new country.” What these most often remembered and read authors have in common is the use of vernacular language, themes that involve fighting, fraudulent horse swaps, practical jokes that range from the mean spirited to the downright dangerous, and a frame featuring a narrator more refined and educated than the characters of their stories.
With the rise of the latter we risk losing the former. Many comedians no longer perform at college campuses because campuses in America have turned into humorless dens of fascism with “speech codes,” “safe spaces,” “trigger warnings” and “microaggressions” – anti-intellectual devices designed to suppress expression and thought.
In the words of the American poet Charles Bukowski, “beware those who are quick to censor, they are afraid of what they do not know.”
Racial humor has always been a touchstone of comedy, and if that ceases to be then the world will be less funny and diverse peoples will become more and more alienated from each other.
Countless comedians have based their entire oeuvre on their ethnicity, from Mel Brooks to Margaret Cho, Paul Rodriguez to Chris Rock. Comedians, like Don Rickles, who use crass racial humor in a positive light as a means to bring people together, are often misunderstood and shunned by the ignorant and the self-righteous.
This translates to music. Artists from Louis Jordan to Louis Prima created humorous songs by playing up ethnic idiosyncrasies and stereotypes.
So this holiday season, here are a few of my favorite racist, culturally appropriated Christmas songs.
Trigger Warning: some of these records may induce joy and cause one to laugh at oneself. In severe cases, they may allow an appreciation of others’ experiences and cause one to recognize elements of those experiences in their own.
“¿Dónde Está Santa Claus?” – Augie Rios
Augie Rios was a child theater actor born in New York City to Puerto Rican immigrants. In 1958, at the time of this record, he was appearing in Jamacia alongside Lena Horn, Ricardo Montalban and Ossie Davis. “¿Dónde Está Santa Claus?” is credited to Rod Parker, Al Greiner and Rios’ manager at the time, George Scheck. Considering the flip side, “Ol’ Fatso (I Don’t Care Who You Are Old Fatso, Get Those Reindeer Off My Roof),” this 45 should come with a double trigger warning. “¿Dónde Está Santa Claus?” remains a holiday staple in many Latino-American homes.