Call me sentimental, but I’ve always been moved by the holiday spirit at this time of year. What I find most moving are the songs that celebrate life and reuniting with one’s family and loved ones.
I clearly understand the argument that the Christmas holiday has been commercialized to nearly unimaginable proportions. Frederick Douglass, who escaped slavery to become a leading abolitionist, argued that slavery would have been overturned much sooner were it not for Christmas. Yes, people endure a lot so we can have a joyous time with our families.
One of the songs that has become a staple at this time of year is Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. I found that the history of this song explains much about what this time of year is about.
The Montgomery Ward retailer of Chicago assigned Robert L. May the job of coming up with a Christmas story that would promote their business. This was in 1939 towards the end of the depression. Aside from the depression of those years, May had other problems he needed to deal with.
May’s wife Evelyn had been battling with cancer for several years and her medical bills were overwhelming. Robert and Evelyn had a four-year old daughter Barbara who liked to go to the local Zoo. It was at this Zoo that Robert May first thought of writing a story about Reindeers.
Robert May was small in stature and wasn’t very popular in school. He eventually wrote and identified with the idea of his Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer overcoming his sadness and isolation to become loved by the other reindeers.
Eventually Robert May received the ownership rights to this story and convinced his brother-in-law Johnny Marks to write a song. Gene Autry sang Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and it became one of the most popular songs of all time.
The day before I started writing this column, I read and obituary of Simeon Booker. Booker was the Washington bureau chief of Jet and Ebony magazines for five decades.
In 1955 Booker lived in Chicago and learned that the son of Mamie Till-Mobley, fourteen-year old Emmett was missing. Emmett Till had been visiting his relatives in Money, Mississippi. Booker immediately understood what this story might be about, he visited Mamie Till-Mobley, and won her confidence.
Emmett Till’s mutilated corpse was found in the Tallahatchie River in Mississippi. Emmett had been raised in Chicago and didn’t think it was a problem to whistle at a white woman. However, there is a long history of lynching in this country. The federal government rarely prosecuted murderers who carried out these lynchings.
In the so-called trial of the murderers of Emmett Till, the courtroom was filled with onlookers who had a bottle of whiskey in one pocket and a pistol in the other. Simeon Booker, as well as others in the courtroom who were outraged by this murder needed to get out of town immediately after the not-guilty verdict. In an interview after the verdict one murderer of Till admitted his guilt.
At Emmett Till’s funeral in Chicago, there were many who didn’t want the press to be present. Mamie Till-Mobley was adamant that Simeon Booker and his photographer, David Jackson, witness the funeral. She also insisted that the funeral casket be opened. These were the words Simeon Booker recorded of Mamie Till-Mobley at the funeral:
“Her face wet with tears, she leaned over the body, just removed from a rubber bag in a Chicago funeral home and cried out ‘Darling you have not died in vein. Your life has been sacrificed for something.’ “
Just a few months after the murder of Emmett Till, Rosa Parks refused to sit in the back of a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. This action, as well as the decades long resistance to Jim Crow segregation, sparked the 385-day Montgomery Bus Boycott.
During those years Simeon Booker would take off his suit and dress as a sharecropper in overalls in order to avoid the violence against Black people in those years. He also needed to hide in the back of a hearse in order to escape a racist mob.
My ride to work that day
After reading this story, I went to work and listened to the Christmas Carrols on the radio. One of those songs featured Levi Stubbs who sang with the Four Tops. Stubbs lived his life in Detroit, Michigan and refused to have his name featured apart from the Four Tops. The song was about a celebration of life at the holidays and getting together with family.
Clearly Levi Stubbs was well aware of the murder of Emmett Till and the institutionalized discrimination Black people endured in every part of this country. My opinion is that Stubbs as well as many other artists were able to transcend the horrors of their day, and give us their idea of how precious life can be.
Karl Marx once argued that, “Religion of the opiate of the masses.” My opinion is that Marx felt that if working people look squarely at our condition, we would be motivated to change it. Why should we work for our entire lives, so a tiny minority of the population can have more wealth than they could ever use?
Clearly Marx as well as Frederick Douglass were correct in their observations about religion and the holidays. My opinion is that while we can appreciate their ideas, we can also celebrate life and have good times.
This year we can celebrate the freedom of Oscar Lopez Rivera who served thirty-seven years in the dungeons of the United States. At this same time we see the utter indifference of the United States government in the aftermath of a devastating hurricane that hit Puerto Rico. Given this state of affairs, more and more people understand why Oscar Lopez Rivera dedicated his life to the independence of Puerto Rico.
Since Christmas is a religious holiday, I will conclude this column with a quotation from the Bible that I believe is relevant to all those who are religious as well as non-religious. This was about the battle between David and Goliath.
Before David engaged in his battle with Goliath someone argued that this battle would not be fair. Goliath was large and strong and had sophisticated weapons. David was smaller and all he had was a sling-shot. So, they warned David against fighting Goliath. But David said: “Is there not a cause?”
Yes, there continues to be a cause, and this cause is the future of the human race. While there may be times when we feel ridiculed and isolated, history teaches us that we have a real possibility to make this a truly wonderful world.