It was “Christmas in July” for me when I was about 14 years old and accompanied my mother to the local Thrift Shop.
Amongst the other antiques and second-hand treasures, I discovered a stack of yellowing Depression-era 12-page Sunday comics sections from the now-defunct “Nashville Banner” and scooped them up for a dime each. (My euphoria may strike you as odd, but that’s me. Yes, I had discovered girls - but girls had discovered PEPPER SPRAY, so I settled for the polychromatic effulgence of the strips.)
One yuletide-themed strip has stuck in my memory for nearly four decades and - since that particular installment is turning 75 years old -just had to be the topic for this week’s column.
In the Dec. 19, 1937 “Gasoline Alley” strip by creator Frank King, Santa Claus arrives in town with Donner and Blitzen for a “last minute inspection.” He is nonplussed that there are no livery stables for the reindeer — just automobile garages and parking meters. (Although in later years the problem will be Chinese manufacturing and the assault on Main Street by “big box” stores, already the Currier & Ives image of Christmas is being assailed by Progress.)
Saint Nick is mobbed by flavor-of-the-month reporters, who refuse to accept him as the Real Deal and assume he must have some self-serving promotional angle. Christmas cynicism: a uniquely 21st century malady? I think not.
Santa’s eyes are assailed by Kringle-themed department store displays and a motley crew of fake Santas (in various shapes, sizes and degrees of seediness), all hawking one product or another. True, the huckstering did not begin the day after Labor Day, but we still see that Christmas commercialism is nothing new.
A band of impudent youngsters mock the bewildered old man, taunting him, “Don’t get a match near them cotton whiskers.” True, today those youngsters would text the jibes and then return to a single-parent home, but this vintage strip still casts doubt on the rosy image of a halcyon era when all youngsters revered their elders.
Even though Gasoline Alley is the most wholesome hamlet this side of Mayberry, creches and other religious symbols are missing from this Christmas strip (and most of the strips in the same section). The secularization of Christmas is nothing unprecedented. In fact, if one looked beyond Gasoline Alley to Li’l Abner or Barney Google, one might well surmise that “corn squeezins is the reason for the season.”
Finally ready to reclaim his reindeer and return to the North Pole, Santa runs into trouble with the law. He tries explaining to a policeman that he is Santa Claus. The cop sarcastically responds, “Oh, yeah? Then I’m Father Time and you get a ticket for parkin’ over 30 minutes!”
So even in 1937 there was lack of faith, unkind behavior and Christmas stress.
I don’t mean to rain on your Christmas parade or minimize anyone’s legitimate concerns about the gradual deterioration of the holiday, but I want to put some perspective on the subject.
Whether you’re reading this the day I upload it or three-quarters of a century later in fading newsprint, I hope you and your family can lay grumbling aside and live for the moment of Christmas.
See you in the funny papers.
Danny Tyree welcomes reader e-mail responses at firstname.lastname@example.org and visits to his Facebook fan page “Tyree’s Tyrades.”