Looking Backward Into the Present

Using the Popular Culture of the Past to Help Answer Perplexing Questions in the Present

Archive for Popular Culture Questions

Was Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer Jewish?

Having married into an interfaith family that has both Jewish and Christian traditions, it sometimes forces me to reconsider my own traditions in a different light.  I was in the midst of doing various things for the Hanukkah celebration with my wife’s family, when I started listening

Rudolph's lesser known cousin Shimmel

to Barry Manilow’s version (don’t hold it against me) of “Rudolph” on CD.  It was actually pretty good, so I started listening to it again.  On the second time around, it occurred to me that one of the undercurrents of the song is “alienation” from the elements of Christmas. 

For some reason, I’ve been fascinated with my recent discovery that many famous Christmas songs were written by Jewish songwriters.  “Rudolph”, it turns out, is no exception.  However, before for I delve too deep, I just want to differentiate that there is “Rudolph” the original story written by Robert L. May and “Rudolph” the popular song adapted by his brother-in-law Johnny Marks. 

So the story goes, in 1939 Robert L. May was a copywriter for  the Montgomery-Ward department store chain and created the original story of “Rudolph-the-Red-Nosed Reindeer” as a promotional gimmick.  Yes, that’s right, the most famous reindeer of all started out as a commercial. The popular history is that May drew from the “Ugly Duckling” tale and pitched it to his boss, who after some coaxing green-lighted the project and the story became a runaway success.  In the midst of creating the story, May’s wife had a terminal illness and died around the same time May finished “Rudolph”.  Not only was May deeply in debt from medical bills, Montgomery-Ward owned the rights to “Rudolph” and so he did not see a cent in the beginning from the licensing.  Eventually, May was able to secure the license from Montgomery-Ward and he and his family lived comfortably for the rest of his days. 

However, if you consider that May was drawing from the Jewish-American experience around Christmastime, the story seems to take on a new dimension.  Imagine if you are a Jewish copywriter in the 1930s mid-west trying to come up with ideas for Christmas promotions or being ostracized around the Christmas season by your peers.  Phrases such as “People used to laugh and call him names” or “They never let poor Rudolph, join in any reindeer games” take on a whole new meaning. However, It is unclear from the 15 minutes of in-depth research that I did whether May himself was actually Jewish.  However, his brother-in-law Johnny Marks was definitely Jewish.  So that strongly suggests that at the very least his wife was Jewish. 

However, as sources such as snopes.com point out, the original story “Rudolph” differs significantly from the song written by Marks.  One can safely say then that the song version of “Rudolph” comes from the Jewish-American perspective. Although this is wild speculation, one wonders if Marks was thinking about Mays’ or his own Jewish-American experience when he penned these lyrics about a once-ostracized Rudolph who gained acceptance from his peers at Christmas: “Then all the reindeer loved him/As they shouted out with glee,/Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer,/You’ll go down in history!”

Either way, it’s still a great song and undeniably gets everyone, perhaps even a few Jewish listeners, in the holiday spirit.


What is the Difference Between a Pilgrim and Puritan?

As anyone who is friends with me knows, I have been reading a LOT of colonial  history over the course of the last few months. 

So on the eve of that most colonial of American holidays, Thanksgiving, I thought I would write something about it on this blog. 

William Bradford wonders for all eternity: "Who ate all the stuffing?"

One thing that has always been a mild source of rhetorical confusion for me is the difference between the term “Pilgrim” and “Puritan”.  Were Pilgrims coming over on the Mayflower Puritans? Or did Pilgrims have a separate, nuanced identity apart from Puritans?  Or were Pilgrims the non-religious people coming over with the Puritans?  I wasn’t quite a 100 percent sure. 

To answer this question, I turned to the distinctly non-American online version of the Oxford English Dictionary.   According to the OED, a common U.S. usage of the term Pilgrim refers to the settlers of the Plymouth Colony.:

 1630, William Bradford (the second governor of Plymouth) uses pilgrim of the settlers figuratively, alluding to Hebrews 11:13 (cf. sense 3). The same phraseology was repeated by Cotton Mather and others, and became familiar in New England. By the late 18th cent. commemorative toasts were often given to ‘the Pilgrims’ or ‘the Sons of the Pilgrims’, and through such celebration Pilgrim and Pilgrim Father eventually passed into use as historical designation

So then I looked up the definition of Puritan in the OED.  According to them, a Puritan was:

A member of a group of English Protestants of the late 16th and 17th centuries, who regarded the reformation of the Church under Elizabeth I as incomplete and sought to remove any remaining elements of church practice (such as ceremonies, church ornaments, the use of musical instruments, and in some cases episcopal authority) which they considered corrupt, idolatrous, or unscriptural.

So in essence, the term Pilgrim seems to become a term to separate Puritans in America with those Puritans left behind in England. 

However, the Pilgrim Hall Museum (yes, there is one), suggests that the Puritans that came over on the Mayflower in 1620 and founded the Plymouth Colony were different than the Puritans who came in 1630 on ships such as the Arbella to start the Massachussetts Bay Colony.  In a piece on their Web site called Pilgrim and Puritan: A Delicate Distinction, Richard Howard Maxwell writes:

In other words, the Pilgrims who settled Plymouth were puritans seeking to reform their church [in England], and the Puritans who settled Massachusetts Bay were pilgrims (with that lower-case “p”) who moved to a whole new land because of their religious convictions. Now you know why I call it a “delicate distinction!”

That should clear everything up (he said sarcastically).   

As far as the first Thanksgiving goes, below is an account of the first Thanksgiving in August 1621 from William Bradford’s History Of Plimoth Plantation (FYI—he’s a terrible speller).  Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

They begane now to gather in ye small harvest they  had, and to fitte up their houses and dwellings against winter, being all well recovered in health & strenght, and had all things in good plenty; for as some were thus imployed in affairs abroad, others were excersised in fishing, aboute codd, & bass, & other fish, of which y ey tooke good store, of which every family had their portion. All y e somer ther was no wante.  And now begane to come in store of foule, as winter aproached, of which this place did abound when they came first (but afterward decreased by degrees). And besids  water foule, ther was great store of wild Turkies, of which they tooke many, besids venison, &c. Besids they had aboute a peck a meale a weeke to a person, or now since harvest, Indean corne to y* proportion. Which made many afterwards write so largly of their plenty hear to their freinds in England, which were not fained, but true reports.

Here Comes the Bride, There Goes the Bride


Elsa probably wishes they had chosen Mendelssohn for their wedding instead.

I recently attended a wedding and the music from the procession was not “Here Comes the Bride” as is popular in many American weddings and probably most weddings portrayed on American TV/Film in the last forty years.  Some lamented its absence, some did not. Naturally, the discussion turned to “Where did ‘Here Comes the Bride’ come from?”

What most Americans think of as the song “Here Comes the Bride” is actually the bridal chorus from the Wagner opera Lohengrin.  There are lyrics, but contrary to popular belief they do not begin with “Here comes the bride all dressed in white . . .”

It’s more like (translated from German): “Faithfully guided, draw near/to where the blessing of love shall preserve you!/Triumphant courage, the reward of love,/joins you in faith as the happiest of couples!”

Writes Dan Fox in 2007’s World’s Greatest Wedding Music: 50 of the Most Requested Wedding Pieces:

Wagner’s opera Lohengrin, first produced in 1850, is set in medieval Antwerp.  Lohengrin is a Knight of the Holy Grail who defends and then marries Elsa of Brabant.  In the opera, this march is used to announce the arrival of the bridal procession.  In modern weddings, as “Here Comes the Bride,” it announces the arrival of the bride at the head of the aisle.

What is ironic, is that the marriage between Lohengrin and Elsa is doomed from the start.  So in essence, one of the most popular songs used in American wedding celebrations is about a failed marriage.  Perhaps it’s better that the song is falling out of tradition.

What is History? (Part 1)

So someone commented yesterday that it had been a long time since I had posted to my blog.  I checked the date of my last post and I couldn’t believe it had been almost two months? Wow.  Time flies.  Part of the reason for the delay is because I have started my coursework on my Ph.d. in history and have been under a mountain of reading/writing.  Of course, one of the first questions that I get is:  “What are you studying?”  The short answer is a lot of historiography.  Naturally, the second question I usually get is “What is historiography?”  To answer basically, it is the history of history.  One of the first books I read to introduce me to the study of historiography is Edward Hallett Carr’s book “What is History?”  Carr’s book is a collection of lectures delivered at the University of Cambridge January circa March 1961.  So I thought it would be interesting to post some of his more interesting quotes that get at the heart of the question: What is history?

BTW – I’m using the Vintage Books paperback version for my citations. 

  • It used to be said that facts speak for themselves.  This is, of course, untrue.  The facts speak only when the historian calls on them: it is he who decides to which facts to give the floor, and in what order or context.  It was, I think, one of Pirandello’s characters who said that a fact is like a sack—it won’t stand up till you’ve put something in it. (page 9)
  • The belief that a hard core of historical facts existing objectively and independently of the interpretation of the historian is a preposterous fallacy, but one which it is very hard to eradicate. (page10)
  • By and large, the historian will get the kind of facts he wants.  History means interpretation.  Indeed, if, standing  Sir George Clark on his head, I were to call history “a hard core of interpretation surrounded by a pulp of disreputable facts. (26)
  • History cannot be written unless the historian can achieve some kind of contact with the mind of those about whom he is writing. (27)
  • The third point is that we can view the past, and achieve our understanding of the past, only through the eyes of the present.  (28)
  • Yet the historian is obliged to choose [terms to describe]: the use of language forbids him to be neutral. (28)
  • The function of the historian is neither to love the past nor to emancipate himself from the past, but to master and understand it as the key to the understanding of the present. (29)
  • What is history?,  is that is a continuous process of interaction between the historian and his facts, an unending dialogue between the present and the past.  (35)
  • My purpose is to merely show how closely the work of the historian mirrors the society in which he works.  It is not merely the events that are in flux.  The historian himself is in flux.  When you take up a historical work, it is not enough to look for the author’s name in the title-page:  look also for the date of publication or writing—it is sometimes even more revealing.  (51)
  • There is no more significant pointer to the character of a society than the kind of history it writes or fails to write. (53)


Is Peanut Butter a Condiment?

The idea of this post started from a casual conversation about food seasonings.  The person I was talking to referred to peanut butter as, “her favorite condiment.”

I retorted, “Peanut-butter is not a condiment.”

“Yes, it is. It’s not a standalone food.”

“No it’s not. It is not used as a garnish like ketchup, mustard and mayonnaise.”

“Then what exactly defines a ‘condiment’?”

Neither one of us could come up with what exactly characterized a condiment.  Furthermore, when I asked other people what exactly the definition of a condiment was, no one could really answer me definitively (pun intended).   So to satisfy my curiosity, I did some research on the history of condiments.

First I went to Merriam-Webster for the definition of condiment, which defines it as “something used to enhanced food; especially: a pungent seasoning.”  According to the dictionary, the term dates back in various forms to the 15th century. 

Next, I looked up the definition of peanut butter, which was defined as “a paste made from ground roasted peanuts.”

Neither definition offered a real solution to the question, “Is peanut butter a condiment?”

So I dug back deeper to the writings of the great agricultural chemist and inventor George Washington Carver, who is widely regarded as developing and popularizing modern peanut butter.  In his famous How to Grow the Peanut and 105 Ways of Preparing it for Human Consumption, here is Carver’s original recipe:

Shell the peanuts; roast just enough so that the hulls will slip off easily; remove all the hulls by gently rolling, fanning, and screening; grind very fine in any sort of mill, passing through several times if necessary; pack in cans, bottles, or jars, and seal if not for immediate use. Some manufacturers add a little salt and a small amount of olive oil; others do not, according to taste. For small quantities of butter a good meat grinder will answer the purpose. If the nuts are ground fine enough no additional oil will be necessary.

Carver clearly sees peanut butter in the same class as a “butter” and not, say, as a type of spread such as ham salad.  But is it a condiment?


George Washingto Carver probably would not have put peanut butter on his hot dog

In A Treatise on Diet by John Ayrton Paris, defines condiments as, “substances which are, in themselves, incapable of nourishing, but which, in concert with our food, promote its digestion, or correct some of its deleterious properties.”

This definition of condiments would lead one to believe that peanut butter is not a condiment, since it has nourishing qualities. 

However,  Paris classifies condiments in three categories:

  • Saline
  • Spicy or aromatic
  • Oil

The oil category is what concerns us most here.  According to Paris, plain butter is considered part of this category of oleaginous condiments.  So if plain butter is considered a condiment, logic goes that peanut butter would also be considered an oleaginous condiment based on Carver’s original conception of the food product. 

But could you put it on a hot dog?

Where does the term limelight come from?

I have been working on a stage play recently and ran across the term “limelight” several times.  We all know that to be in the limelight, one has been seeking the spotlight of the stage or public attention.  But then it occurred to me, why “limelight”?  Why not lemonlight?  Better yet, if you are a Sprite fan why not lymon light?

Contrary to Sprite propaganda, there is no such thing as lymonlight.

Contrary to Sprite propaganda, there is no such thing as lymonlight.

It turns out that limelight refers to the chemical reaction created when an oxyhydrogen flame is directed at a cylinder of calcium oxide, commonly referred to as lime. 

According to The Hydrogen Age, a book by Geoffrey Holland and James J. Provenzano, the limelight effect was developed in 1826 by English chemist Goldsworthy Gurney (how’s that for a name!) and developed into a working light by Thomas Drummond. 

“The result was a brilliant bright incandescence that Drumond soon adapted for use in lighthouses because it remained visible fifty or more miles distant.  Within a few decades limelight was also lighting stage performers in theaters and music halls across Europe and America.”

According to the Wikipedia entry on limelight,

“Limelight was first used in the Covent Garden Theatre in London in 1837 and enjoyed widespread use in theatres around the world in the 1860s and 1870s.  Limelights were employed to highlight solo performers in the same manner as modern followspots. To this day, theatre followspots are often referred to as limes.  Limelight was replaced by electric arc light in the late 19th century.”

Let it be said then, that there are still limes in the theater, but no lime left in the limelight.

Quoth the Raven: Why Is There An Edger Allan Poe Museum in Richmond, Virginia?

If you are like me, than the city most closely associated with the literary figure Edgar Allan Poe is Baltimore, Maryland. Poe spent his final days in Baltimore and died under mysterious circumstances. Here is an account of his death by his cousin, Neilson Poe, reprinted in the book Edgar Allan Poe, by Arthur Hobson Quinn and Shawn Rosenheim:

“The [Baltimore] newspapers, in announcing his death, have only told a truth, which we may weep over & deplore, but cannot change. He died on Sunday morning about 5 o’clock, at the Washington Medical College, where had been since the Wednesday preceding. At what time he arrived in this city, where he spent the time he was here, or under what circumstances, I have been unable to ascertain. It appears that, on Wednesday, he was seen & recognised at one of the places of election in old town, and that his condition was such as to render it necessary to send him to the college, where he was tenderly nursed until the time of his death . . . . He lies alongside his ancestors in the Presbyterian burying ground on Green Street—.”

So perhaps, because he is buried in Baltimore and much of his extended Poe family was from Baltimore, he is most closely associated with that town.

Naturally, I was pleasantly surprised then to find that there was also a Poe Museum in Richmond, Virginia, which I attended on a recent trip to the city. In my personal historical research I knew that he had strong ties to the city, but was not sure how well-known that fact was. According to the museum, the Allan family, who were tobacco merchants, lived in Richmond. His first job was at the Southern Literary Messenger and he attended the University of Virginia in nearby Charlottesville. Poe married his cousin, Virginia Clemm, in Richmond and also gave a lecture in the city shortly before his death.

Image of the front window of the Poe Museum in Richmond.  Is that some visitor tapping, rapping at my chamber door?

Image of the front window of the Poe Museum in Richmond. Is that some visitor tapping, rapping at my chamber door?

I was disappointed, however, that there was no reference in the museum to the near duel in 1848 that Poe almost had with John Daniel, editor of the Richmond Examiner, which I wrote about in my book, Pistols, Politics and the Press.  This, in my mind, helps cement Poe as a Richmond literary figure.  The near duel was over public comments made by Daniel regarding the growing relationship between family friend, Sarah Helen Whitman, and Poe. Infuriated, Poe sought to challenge Daniel to a duel over the controversy. According to some eyewitness accounts, Daniel, an expert duelist, called Poe’s bluff. He sent for Poe, who was apparently drunk, to meet him in his office at the Examiner. When Poe arrived, Daniel displayed two very large pistols on his desk and told him that instead of getting the police involved, that they should indeed settle the dispute with a duel. Poe apparently sobered up quickly and the situation was peacefully resolved.

A review of the two-volume works of Edgar Allan Poe, written by Daniel in the March 1850 edition of the Southern Literary Messenger, probably sums up popular opinion of the writer in Richmond at the time of his death:

“These half told tales and broken poems are the only records of a wild, hard life; and all that is left of a real genius, — genius in the true sense of the word, unmistakeable and original. No other American has half the chance of a remembrance in the history of literature. Edgar Poe’s reputation will rest in a very small minority of the compositions in these two volumes. Among all his poems, there are only two or three which are not execrably bad. The majority of his prose writings are the children of want and dyspepsia, of printer’s devils and of blue devils. Had he the power of applying his creative faculties—as have had the Miltons, the Shakespeares and all the other demiugi—he would have been a very great man.”

In short, even though he was a literary master, those who knew him never thought he worked up to his true potential. Some critics are never satisfied.