Friday, December 16, 2011

Hipster Reindeer of New York

(Or How New York Invented Christmas)

New York lays claim to most everything and Christmas is no exception. From Santa Claus himself to eight tiny reindeer you wouldn't be noggin' if not for New York.

Christmas is so hip that St. Nick himself is from Chelsea. Clement Clarke Moore's Manhattan spread was named Chelsea and he developed the neighborhood that later became the hipster haven Chelsea. Where else would you expect to find characters named Dasher, Prancer, Donner, Blitzen, Comet and Cupid?

Wait, there's two more hipster reindeer but their names have disappeared into the city at night. When you think about it, Comet and Cupid are the 19th century version of Sid and Nancy who are forever linked to Chelsea if not the Chelsea Hotel. The rest of the hooved hipsters read like stage names on a Christopher Street revue.

While Moore may have dolled up the deer with sequins and rouge (more on that particular reindeer later) he didn't invent the reindeer. Washington Irving had Santa Claus traipsing through the skies in a horse and wagon, though in Irving's head Santa Claus was still Sinterklaes owing to New York's Dutch colonial roots. Speaking of those Dutch roots, the first Europeans to settle the five boroughs came over on a little boat not called the Mayflower. The intrepid Dutch rowed in on a beast called the St Nicholas. The Dutch hung their stockings with care.

But back to the reindeer.

The sled full of Kramers first came to fashion in 1821. Something called, "The Children's Friend." This anonymous, forgotten to the times, ode to high-flying reindeer pulling a sleigh in the sky was published two full years before Moore anonymously published his, "A Visit from St. Nicholas." Moore didn't attach his name to the tale until it hit big time like happy hour at the White Horse Tavern.

(There is no happy hour at the White Horse Tavern by the way. When you're that famous you don't need a happy hour. Let's continue with our little White Horse digression to include mention that the author of "A Child's Christmas in Wales" — Dylan Thomas — drank himself to death at the White Horse Tavern in November 1953 after boasting, "I've had eighteen straight whiskies. I think that's the record!")

Today, a corner of the literati dispute that Moore penned the ode and believe that another New Yorker, Henry Livingston Jr. wrote, "A Visit from St. Nicholas." Livingston's children later recalled their father reading the poem to them 15 years before it was published.

Seven years after the reindeer hit the pages of the Troy Sentinel on December 23, 1823, A.T. Stewart's lower Broadway department store was marking its best sales of the year in the week preceding Christmas. And you thought Black Friday was a late 20th century contrivance. No, no, no. The commercialization of Christmas began with T.A. and other New York merchants. Stewart's radical idea of including prices on merchandise allowed women to come in off the streets to browse and not be hit with sticker shock.

That original Broadway store gave way to the "Marble Palace" that Stewart built across the street on Broadway. In turn and in time that store became the offices of the New York Sun. The paper that became part of Christmas lore for its editorial addressed to a little girl named Virginia. By 1862 Stewart's flagship store now at Broadway and 10th Street employed 2000 people and his personal income exceeded one million bucks — or stags — a year. Either way it was a lot of doe! (It couldn't be helped.)

Speaking of commercialism, most people think that Coca-Cola invented Santa Claus. But how could that be? Coca Cola is from Atlanta, their ad agency was from St. Louis, the artist from Michigan. Where is the New York connection? That image you have of Santa all jolly and fat garbed in red did not come from a bottle. If it did come from a bottle it came from one in Thomas Nast's cabinet.

Nast came up with a grinning bearded fellow in a trimmed hat. Holding an elongated pipe in one hand and an armful of toys in the other, Nast's jolly old elf was the standard until the 20th century. Known for his political cartoons attacking Tammany Hall and other New York institutions, Nast's vision of Santa Claus turned up in Harper's Weekly in 1860. But give Coke it's due. Haddon Sundblom, the artist who came up with the iconic Coca Cola Santa drew on Livingston's... er... Moore's depiction of St. Nick for his inspiration.

But back to the reindeer.

While a case can be made for Olive the other reindeer, it is the red-nosed one that people recall. While an advertising department in Chicago may lay claim to the most famous reindeer of all it was New Yorker Johnny Marks that brought him to life in music. No Nureyev or Valentino, this one reindeer was shunned by his peers because he was not like all the other reindeer. They used to laugh and call him names. What better place for this particular reindeer to shine than in Greenwich Village?

As much as it is the reindeer and Santa that pull on the heartstrings (or is that just the pickpocket on the C train during rush hour?) it is the songs, those inescapable songs that ooze through every speaker and elevator from November on. Those Christmas chestnuts that leave us longing for home and family for a white Christmas real or imagined. At one time the biggest selling song of all time, bigger than Madonna...bigger than Lady GaGa...bigger even than The Beib...was New Yorker Irving Berlin's White Christmas.

But back to the reindeer.

The reindeer names forgotten in the opening of this spiel — Dancer and Vixen. Both would feel at home performing on the Great White Way on stage at the Winter Garden or onstage at Flashdancers. Who hasn't tucked a single in the g-string of a Vixen? or a Dancer? Broadway brings us full circle to the lore of Christmas in New York. Christmas is art! Christmas is entertainment! Christmas is movies!

You cannot have a Christmas season without a blockbuster movie. Think back to, "Going My Way"...released in May, 1944. How about that magical year of 1947 when two all-time Christmas classics hit the big screen in "Miracle on 34th Street"...also released in May and "It's A Wonderful Life," upstate, yes, but still New York, released in January! Okay, so it took a while for Hollywood to get it right when it came time to capture New York and Christmas. They did give us, "Home Alone II" in 1992 and in 2011 we get, "New Year's Eve."

But back to the reindeer...

Mark Butkus

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