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!
As the first snows of December drift across my South St Louis windows, and the last shards of Thanksgiving turkey find their way into the requisite casseroles, cold cuts, and cauldrons of stock, I find myself harkening back to early Advent Sundays of yore.
My childhood, like so many others, was loaded with the humor of the holidays, but one of my family’s favorite traditions always tended in a more marsupial direction. So if you’ie got some time between mixing tubs of “Tom and Jerry” and trimming the tree, I’d like to share one of many meaningful excursions through the absurd quadrants of kiddie Christmas culture.
As I boy growing up in Detroit in the 1970s, I loved watching my mother collapse the last of her gargantuan Thanksgiving feast into a few impossibly crammed Tupperware containers and stuff the serving platters, gravy boats, and silver-plate cutlery away for their long sleep through the seasons until the following November.
While my father wrestled with the Christmas tree and cursed our cat as it grinned Cheshire-style from the upper branches, my mother would softly sing carols to herself or hum along to the holiday classics on the kitchen radio. My family loved Christmas for many reasons – togetherness, food, faith, and even frantic shopping – but mostly we adored the way it gave rise to an unusual number of opportunities for great stories and copious laughter. Those post-Thanksgiving radio carols were our first inklings that more manic Christmas cheer would soon come rolling in on an eggnog tsunami of tinsel, gingerbread, Grinches, and Good Old Charlie Brown holiday specials.
Every year, though, one particular tune ran a bit askew of the more traditional standards. My mother was hardly a musical person. She could never carry a tune and she famously celebrated the destruction of our family piano, relishing the thought that she had saved her son from the miserable lessons she detested as a child. Yet, she loved Christmas music of all stripes, and one particularly eclectic ditty above all else.
They say humor is based on timing. Yes, as is everything else. Ask Elisha Gray about telephone patents. I was plugging along, working on a piece about the comedian Dana Gould, and still figuring out when I would finish writing about Mark Twain and the German language, when an article in my local newspaper caught my attention:
“Dead Poets Society founder visits 300th grave”
The fact that there’s an actual Dead Poets Society prompts visions of Ethan Hawkes’s teeth and an involuntary desire to kill Robert Sean Leonard. Swallowing my bile I learned that the current founder, Walter Skold of Freeport (Maine), has visited the gravesites of 300 poets “ahead of this weekend’s fourth annual Dead Poets Remembrance Day.”
What is “Dead Poets Remembrance Day”? Apparently, “with the help of 13 current and past state poets laureate,” Skold was able to dedicate October 7—“the day that Edgar Allan Poe died and James Whitcomb Riley was born—to heightening public awareness of the art of poetry.
The article posted October 5. That was Saturday. Making the actual memorial day a Monday. Today. My day to submit. So in honor of dead poets everywhere (and as one who writes the occasional verse and considers the artform dead, and therefore all practitioners the undead) let us examine the two poets tied to this day. What the article does not share is an appreciation for not just the day, but the year. On October 7, 1849, as Edgar Allan Poe lay dying of possibly drunken Rabies in a Baltimore medical college, James Whitcomb Riley was borning in Greenfield, Indiana.
So last month, when I recounted the recent Mark Twain Quadrennial, in Elmira, New York, I did not lie to you when I said my last name was a rarity outside of Brazil. But I might’ve misled. I’m not Hispanic. The name, phonetically confusing no matter the accent, originates from a very localized area in the Catholic part of Germany. Before social media made rabble of us all, my immediate network of genetic cognates stretched the length and width of America, but number well under forty (out of 313.9 million Americans without my last name). Once humans began twittering, a search for my surname generates hundreds of Andrés, Rafaels, Guilhermes, Edleides, and Gabriels. All of them write in Portuguese, and the best I can figure populated the Southern Hemisphere in the nineteenth century. Their ancestors did anyway. My ancestors begin with my great-grandfather, his wife, and my grandfather, barely a toddler in 1920, leaving Köln after fighting Americans for the Kaiser in the Great War. He set up his own machine shop outside of Boston, and began a tradition of not passing on family history to the next generation, and so in turn we know very little but apocrypha.
But apocrypha is a start. While we seek a connection with our distant Vaterland, all of us—North and South American—still sit under the shadow of a later holocaust with greater ethical concerns than the mobilized imperial reaction to the assassination of Franz Ferdinand in June 1914. Thankfully, none of us bear any of the guilt, even if there’s always the cinematic suspicion. For those of you too young to remember, Zie Germans were fun adversaries in popular media long after World War II and despite the atrocities committed on their own citizens. Hollywood couldn’t quit them as antagonists until 9/11 made clandestine sleeper cell guerrilla terrorism all the rage. Islamic extremists make for good long-form television, but not epic two-hour cinema. Meanwhile the pomp and circumstance of Nazi regalia still seems a popular attraction. And if the uniform gets a little thread-bare, Hollywood’s costume designers can go back a score and break out the Kaiser’s pointy helmets and Red Baron pilot goggles.
Vacations are meant to be relaxing. Swim, sun, cook, drink, rinse, repeat. Due to personal and professional deadlines my vacation went more like: clean, trash, write, apply, review, request an extension. Between submitting for publication, looking for new employment, refinancing the house, and running an amateur wrestling clinic for small children out of my living room, I found enough time to scribble a few thoughts on humor, drink unwatered whiskey, and beg for a quick death between the hours of 11pm and midnight before it all began again the following day.
Few and far between do I ever find the emancipated evening, like my pass to the local class on voice acting I mentioned last time. If you’re the type to follow links in an online article like E. T. tracking Reese’s Pieces (timely I know), then your detective work discovered my town of residence. Salem, MASS. There are a lot of Salems in the United States, but only ours burned witches so their descendants could sell cheap gimcracks that turn tragedy into novelty. History is ripe for humor, and when that humor becomes routine, the resulting tradition can be called horrible.
Or rather, Horribles. The Ancient and Horribles Parade is a fading New England tradition that sounds a lot like a lottery in Shirley Jackson literature. “We’ve always had a parade!” some old codger mutters before throwing a rock at the chosen sacrifice. Similarly, the parade stretches back into forgotten memory, where many claim its origin but no one really knows when exactly. But they do know what and how. Usually on or around July 4, a community informally gathers to lampoon people in the public eye as a supplement to the formal celebrations sponsored by the government on our day of independence. Like Gerrymandering, the North Shore above Boston also made the event a political device, “whereby the speaker argues against taking a certain course of action by listing a number of extremely undesirable events which will ostensibly result from the action.” But why speak of politics when it can be satirized?
Independence Day posed a question:
Q.) What does a poetry blogger give an internet audience who has everything?
A.) Thirty stanzas of Yankee Doodle, of course!
Below, (courtesy of “The Oxford Book of American Light Verse” 1979) is a fairly complete version of this old satirical ditty. Other stanzas, along with the song’s history, have been lost to the ravages of time. Scholars continue to dispute Yankee Doodle’s origins. The catchy tune is thought to be derived from an old folk song. The stanzas below are traceable as far back as the Seven Year’s War.
Yankee Doodle was sung by the British to mock the Americans, who then appropriated it and rewrote the lyrics in the spirit of turnabout. The rest is history . . . .
Have a safe and happy Fourth of July!
Yankee Doodle went to town
A-riding on a pony,
Stuck a feather in his cap
And called it “macaroni.”
Chorus: (between stanzas)
Yankee Doodle keep it up,
Yankee Doodle dandy,
Mind the music and the step,
And with the girls be handy.
Father and I went down to camp,
Along with Captain Gooding,
And there we saw the men and boys
As thick as hasty pudding.
And there we saw a thousand men
As rich as Squire David,
And what they wasted every day,
I wish it could be saved.
The ‘lasses they eat it every day,
Would keep a house a winter;
They have so much, that I’ll be bound,
They eat it when they’ve mind to.
And there I see a swamping gun
Large as a log of maple,
Upon a deuced little cart,
A load for father’s cattle.
And every time they shoot it off,
It takes a horn of powder,
and makes a noise like father’s gun,
Only a nation louder.
I went as nigh to one myself
As Siah’s underpinning;
And father went as nigh again,
I thought the deuce was in him.
Cousin Simon grew so bold,
I thought he would have cocked it;
It scared me so I shrinked it off
And hung by father’s pocket.
And Captain Davis had a gun,
He kind of clapt his hand on’t
And stuck a crooked stabbing iron
Upon the little end on’t
And there I see a pumpkin shell
As big as mother’s basin,
And every time they touched it off
They scampered like the nation.
I see a little barrel too,
The heads were made of leather;
They knocked on it with little clubs
And called the folks together.
And there was Captain Washington,
And gentle folks about him;
They say he’s grown so ‘tarnal proud
He will not ride without em’.
He got him on his meeting clothes,
Upon a slapping stallion;
He sat the world along in rows,
In hundreds and in millions.
The flaming ribbons in his hat,
They looked so tearing fine, ah!
I wanted dreadfully to get
To give to my Jemima.
I see another snarl of men
A digging graves they told me,
So ‘tarnal long, so ‘tarnal deep,
They ‘tended they should hold me.
It scared me so, I hooked it off,
Nor stopped, as I remember,
Nor turned about till I got home,
Locked up in mother’s chamber.
Brother Ephraim sold his cow
And bought him a commission,
And then he went to Canada
To fight for the nation.
But when Ephraim he came home
He proved and arrant coward,
He wouldn’t fight the Frenchmen there
For fear of being devoured.
Sheep’s head and vinegar,
Buttermilk and tansy,
Boston is a Yankee town––
Sing Hey Doodle Dandy.
First we’ll take a pinch of snuff,
And then a drink of water,
And then we’ll say, “How do you do” ––
And that’s a Yankee’s supper.
Aminadab is just come home,
His eyes all greased with bacon,
And all the news that he could tell
Is Cape Breton is taken.
Stand up, Johnathan
Figure in they neighbor;
Vathen, stand a little off
And make the some some wider.
Christmas is a coming, boys,
We’ll go to Mother Chase’s.
And there we’ll get some sugar dram
sweetened with molasses.
Heigh ho for our Cape Cod,
Heigh ho Nantasket,
Do not let the Boston wags
Feed your oyster basket.
Pumpkin pie is very good.
And so is apple lantern,
Had you been whipped as oft as I
You’d not have been so wanton.
Uncle is a Yankee man,
In faith, he pays us all off,
And he as got a fiddle
As big as Daddy’s hog trough.
Seth’s mother went to Lynn
To by a pair of breeches,
The first time Vathen put them on
He tore out all the stitches.
Dolly Bushel let a fart.
Jenny Jones she found it,
Ambrose carried it to mill
Where Doctor Warren ground it.
Our Jemimah’s lost her mare
And can’t tell where to find her,
But she’ll come trotting by and by
And bring her tail behind her.
Two and two may go to bed,
Two and two together;
And if there is not room enough,
Lie one atop the other.
I have a friend who takes Saint Patrick’s Day very seriously. His extended family gathers on the weekend nearest March 17 to trade sarcasms and drink alcohol. They boil meat on the Massachusetts shoreline, and balance small talk with cruel reminders of past grievances until whiskey favors one end of the scales. Still, the older members of the clan can cover up scandal, debating sports while training the next generation in table games using root beer instead of the hopped variety for everyone under age. But what is under age? It’s up to them. Pretty standard for Jews.
Not really. They’re Irish. Of course they’re Irish. I’m Irish too, but not that Irish. None of us are Jewish, but the contradiction in ethnic stereotypes makes it funny, and necessary to present my title here instead of above: The Jewish Comic and the Irish Muse. Anything sooner would’ve altered the chemistry of the anecdote, and like a good bartender, a storyteller must know the order of ingredients to deliver their greatest effect, and repeat when necessary. Make it a double.