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How 'Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer' Became a Holiday Staple

With more than 11 million copies sold, the kooky country Christmas classic that is "Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer" is a musical gift that keeps on giving—and that can evidently never be returned. It’s the fantastical tale of a tipsy old lady who’s trampled to death by Santa’s sleigh, and the story behind the song is nearly as good.

It begins, like all Christmas fables should, with a blizzard. It was December 1978, and a San Francisco veterinarian named Elmo Shropshire, a.k.a. Dr. Elmo, was booked at the Hyatt in Lake Tahoe with his then-wife, Patsy. The couple had a comedy-bluegrass duo called Elmo & Patsy, and just before taking the stage, they got a visit from one Randy Brooks, a Texas singer-songwriter who’d played the hotel before them and gotten stuck there by the snow.

"I was never what I’d consider to be much of a singer," Dr. Elmo tells mental_floss from his home in California. "I always sang novelty songs, so it didn’t matter if I could sing or not. At the time, we were doing a lot of funny songs. Randy saw our show and said, 'I’ve got this song I think would be perfect for you.'"

The song, of course, was "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer," which Dr. Elmo deemed "the most original take on Christmas music" he’d ever heard. "I didn’t know how long it would last," he says. "But I knew it would get people’s attention the first time he sang it."

Funnily enough, "Grandma" didn’t get much of a reaction from the audience at the Hyatt, where Elmo & Patsy played it with Brooks the night they met. "They thought it was kind of cute," Dr. Elmo says. "There are some songs that are more in your face than that one. The song has all the trappings of Christmas in it, except for that one thing."

That one thing—the old woman getting blindsided by St. Nick, plus the indifferent response from her family—made all the difference. In 1979, an early recording by Dr. Elmo found its way to influential San Francisco DJ Gene "The Emperor" Nelson, who made it a local sensation. Then December 26 rolled around, and Dr. Elmo figured the fun was over. Not even close.

"The following year, word spread from radio station to radio station," says Dr. Elmo, who wisely secured the publishing rights early on. "This wasn’t anything that started out with any big-time radio hype. We weren’t giving DJs cocaine or women or anything. I didn’t have the wherewithal to do all that stuff."

Dr. Elmo self-released 500 copies on 45 rpm vinyl, and by 1981, as the buzz continued to build, he dared to think bigger. In 1982, a company in Nashville contacted him about pressing up 250,000 copies. Dr. Elmo feared he’d be stuck with a garage full of unwanted product, but the records flew off the shelves like Santa’s caribou. That’s when he decided to sell his veterinary hospital to finance a music video, which he shot for $30,000 at his home. At this point, he still didn’t have a record deal.

"After I made the video, I had what you’d call filmmaker’s remorse," Dr. Elmo says. "I paid all that money, and nothing was happening. The 250,000 copies was a good sell, but we didn’t make any money—not enough to pay for the video."

But the investment soon paid off. In November 1983, Dr. Elmo got a call from MTV. The network loved the clip, and it’s easy to see why. Although Grandma lives in the end—a happy ending Dr. Elmo figured was necessary to sell the thing—the video has a vaguely subversive, charmingly low-budget quality that was bound to appeal to teenagers. In the last week of the Christmas season, with the vid in heavy rotation, "Grandma" passed Bing Crosby’s "White Christmas" on the Billboard holiday charts.

"My father would’ve rolled over in his grave," Dr. Elmo says with a laugh. "He thought Bing Crosby was the greatest singer in the world. And so did I."

As Bing felt the sting of the public’s changing tastes, Dr. Elmo was finally in a position to make some money. In previous years, every record company he’d queried had mailed back his letter with the same message: "Stop sending us this crap." With his crap now smelling like gingerbread, Dr. Elmo flew to L.A. and signed a deal with Columbia Records. The label reissued the full-length Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer album he’d recorded the previous year, and in December '84, the LP became the label’s top seller, outpacing Michael Jackson’s Thriller, which was two years old but still plenty popular.

In the 30 or so years since, Dr. Elmo has basically become the Michael Jackson of novelty holiday tunes about hilariously slain matriarchs. Despite the occasional protest from groups like the Gray Panthers, who once gave Dr. Elmo a major publicity boost by labeling the lyrics sexist and ageist, "Grandma" returns each year to leave hoofprints on the popular imagination. The perennial radio favorite has spawned numerous commercial tie-ins, including a 2000 animated TV special and a line of Hallmark musical greeting cards, buttons, and an ornament. This year, fans have their pick of "Grandma" hats at Shopko and dozens upon dozens of apparel options at Walmart.

According to Dr. Elmo, there are even plans for a full-length feature film, so clearly, the franchise still has legs. And so does Dr. Elmo. When he’s not singing his holiday jam, the 80-year-old can be found outrunning the competition at senior track meets and road races. In 2005 at age 69, he finished the New York City Marathon, and in 2013, as a member of Team USA’s 4x400 relay, he won a gold medal at the World Masters Games in Porto Alegre, Brazil. On the day he spoke with mental_floss, he was gearing up for the Florida Senior Games.

Win or lose, he’ll probably be the only participant able to say he’s shared bills with Gwen Stefani and Avril Lavigne and rocked with The Roots on The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon. For a one-hit wonder, Dr. Elmo has had a remarkably fruitful career—one that likely wouldn’t be possible today. As he says, "Grandma" went viral at a time when major labels still mattered and radio stations were the source of new music. With everything moving toward streaming, it’s harder for any single artist or song to really capture the public’s attention.

"Everyone just listens to whatever they want to hear now," Dr. Elmo says. "That’s the difference. That’s both good and bad. If you’re a person who likes music and likes to listen to what you want to hear, there’s never been a better time."

As for why people still dig "Grandma," Dr. Elmo says it continues to fill a void in the holiday music market. "All those hits from the early '50s were really sweet and wonderful and lovely," he says. "They liked to play them in shopping malls so people would buy stuff. When this song came along, another generation of people—and even the younger generations now—embraced it because it’s a little dark. It was much more to their sense of humor. It wasn’t too syrupy sweet."

The song’s darkest moment comes in the second verse, where Grandpa responds to his wife’s death by swilling beer and watching football, like nothing happened. There are two possible ways to read his reaction: Either the old man is coping as best he can, or he’s quietly relishing his newfound freedom. Dr. Elmo is a veterinarian, not a psychologist, but he has a theory.

"He was just kind of tired of the old woman," he says with a laugh. "Grandpa is old. He likes to drink beer and watch football. That’s it."

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9 Common Misperceptions About Religious Observances
A view of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa Mosque compound on the first Friday prayers of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan on May 18, 2018.
A view of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa Mosque compound on the first Friday prayers of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan on May 18, 2018.
AHMAD GHARABLI, AFP/Getty Images

Religion can be confusing. Not only do many religions have similar philosophies and holidays, for many of the world's most widely practiced religions, the details for observing certain holidays or rites can differ based on location, denomination, or modernization. And for those who are less familiar with a particular religion, the details can be easy to overlook. From Ramadan to Advent to Bathing the Buddha, we break down nine common misconceptions surrounding popular religious observances.

1. WHAT'S WRONG: RAMADAN IS A HOLIDAY.

A Muslim man reads from the Koran at a Mosque in Nairobi on May 17, 2018 during the first day of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.
SIMON MAINA, AFP/Getty Images

"In American thinking, we think of [Ramadan] as a holiday because that's the way we associate important religious dates as holidays," Vali Nasr, a professor of international politics at Tufts University, told NPR. "It's not a holiday in the sense that life goes on. The last day of the holy month, which is Eid ul-Fitr, is a holiday and there are periods in between that are holidays. But as a whole, it's not a holiday."

Ramadan is the ninth month in the Islamic calendar (which is a lunar calendar, which explains why the date moves in relation to the Gregorian calendar). It's significant because the Qur'an was first revealed, and the gates of Heaven are opened and the gates of Hell are closed, during this time.

Lailat al Qadr is the actual night of the revelation of the Qur'an, and praying on that night is said to be "better than a thousand months." But no one knows what night it actually was, only that it was probably in the last 10 days of the month. As such, the last 10 days of Ramadan are generally treated as special days.

The main holiday associated with Ramadan is Eid al-Fitr (or Eid ul-Fitr), which marks the end of the month and the end of fasting.

2. WHAT'S WRONG: THE RAMADAN FAST IS ALL ABOUT NOT EATING.

A Muslim family sits around an iftar meal during the month of Ramadan in a park outside a mosque in Turkey.
A Muslim family sits around an iftar meal during the month of Ramadan in a park outside a mosque in Diyabakir, Turkey
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In the West, much of the attention is focused on how, for the month of Ramadan, Muslims don't eat or drink from sunrise to sunset. But that's only part of the story—Muslims are also supposed to abstain from sex, fighting, smoking, bad thoughts, and sometimes even TV during the time of the fast. According to Nasr, "It's a period of spiritual reflection," of which not eating is a part.

But not all Muslims abstain from eating during Ramadan. Some Ismaili Muslims abstain from eating on only a handful of days throughout the year, and during Ramadan focus instead on those other forms of fasting.

3. WHAT'S WRONG: THE RAMADAN FAST IS ALWAYS FROM SUNRISE TO SUNSET.

The suun setting over mountains.
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The majority of the time, this is true. But for Muslim communities in the far north, fasting from sunrise to sunset can be a problem—in the summer, the sun might not set for days or weeks, and in the winter the sun may never rise. Some tough it out, while others follow the time of the nearest major city, nearest Muslim country, or Mecca.

4. WHAT'S WRONG: ADVENT STARTS ON DECEMBER 1.

A child pulls a drawer out of an advent calendar.
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Virtually all the Advent calendars available in the market start on December 1, but this is only rarely correct. Advent actually starts on the Sunday nearest the Feast of St. Andrew, which is November 30. It's believe that the misconception can be traced back to a German man named Gerhard Lang. Lang, inspired by the Advent calendars his mother made him as a boy, began mass producing the calendars in the early 20th century; he eventually decided to standardize the calendar as starting at December 1.

5. WHAT'S WRONG: LENT IS THE 40 DAYS BETWEEN ASH WEDNESDAY AND EASTER.

A palm cross in a dish of ashes on top of a green palm leaf.
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According to the Archdiocese of New Orleans, "Strictly speaking, Lent ends with the beginning of the Triduum on Holy Thursday. The Ordo [the official book that details such issues] notes: 'Lent runs from Ash Wednesday until the Mass of the Lord's Supper exclusive on Holy Thursday.'" [PDF]

The change to Holy Thursday only dates to the 1960s and is only true for Roman Catholics (who point out that a distinction is made between liturgical Lent and the Lenten fast), but even among other Western churches the definition of Lent being the 40 days between Ash Wednesday and Easter isn't quite right. There are actually 46 days between Ash Wednesday and Easter (not including Easter, as traditionally Lent ended on Easter Saturday). The other six days are on Sundays, when fasting is forbidden.

6. WHAT'S WRONG: THE HAJJ IS THE WORLD'S LARGEST RELIGIOUS GATHERING.

The Kaaba in Mecca, Saudi Arabia.
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Every year in the 12th month of the Islamic calendar, 2 to 3 million Muslims gather for the Hajj, or the pilgrimage to Mecca. Despite that number, it is not the largest religious gathering in the world. Kumbh Mela brings Hindus together every three years at one of four alternating sites, with the main Kumbh Mela occurring in Allahabad; In 2013, it counted approximately 120 million people. According to the BBC, the story of Kumbh Mela is that gods and demons fought over a pitcher of nectar and a few drops fell on each of the four cities that now host the festival, and during the festival the water becomes the nectar.

7. WHAT'S WRONG: BATHING THE BUDDHA IS A UNIVERSAL CELEBRATION.

An Indonesian Buddhist bathes the Buddha statue during a Vesak ceremony in Mojokerto, Indonesia.
Robertus Pudyanto, Getty Images

One of the most well-known Buddhist celebrations in the West is Vesak (or Wesak), and one of the most well-known components of the day is Bathing the Buddha, where water gets poured over the Buddha to purify the mind.

But in reality the day is more complex than that. Vesak is a day that commemorates the birth, enlightenment, and death of the Buddha in Theravada Buddhism. But Mahayana Buddhists view these three events as happening at three separate times, with only the Buddha's birthday occurring the same time as Vesak. In modern Western cities that have multiple Buddhist groups, the Mahayana tradition of Bathing the Buddha often gets combined with the Theravada celebration of Vesak, so much so that one Theravada Buddhist writing for the Huffington Post noted that he had never even heard of the Bathing the Buddha tradition as part of Vesak before college.

8. WHAT'S WRONG: RELIGIOUS OBSERVANCES ARE ALWAYS SPECIFIC TO THE RELIGION.

A Muslim man reads from the Koran at a Mosque in Nairobi on May 17, 2018 during the first day of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.
SIMON MAINA, AFP/Getty Images

While most of the time a religious holiday is exclusive to its religion, there are certain festivities that span across religions. The Muslim day of Ashura originated when Mohammed arrived in Medina and saw the Jews fasting in honor of Moses. Mohammed then ordered a fast as well. Today, scholars debate whether the Jews of Medina were celebrating Passover or Yom Kippur, but Ashura was originally based on a Jewish holy day.

9. WHAT'S WRONG: ALL MEMBERS OF A RELIGION CELEBRATE THE SAME HOLIDAYS.

Four burning candles for Diwali.
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Just as some holidays can spread across multiple religions, some holidays are not universally followed within the religion. Quakers, which are a denomination of Protestant Christians, have traditionally not celebrated Christmas or Easter because they consider every day a holy day. Traditionally, the people of Kerala in the south of India don't view Diwali as a major celebration, for reasons that are debated. And on the flip side, groups within a religion often have their own holidays, such as the Old Believers (a group of Eastern Orthodox Christians who split from the main branch) who celebrate holidays such as the Transfer of the Relics of St. Nicholas, commemorating the movement of the relics from Turkey to Italy.

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10 Other Mother’s Days from Around the World
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After her mother passed away in 1905, Anna Jarvis resolved to dedicate a day to her mother, and mothers everywhere. Little did she know, and evidently much to her chagrin, Mother’s Day fast became a commercial phenomenon. Its popularity spread worldwide and many countries, particularly in the Western world, adopted the second Sunday in May as their official Mother’s Day. But not every nation followed suit—perhaps to the chagrin of their local flower companies. In fact, Mother’s Day in many countries has little or nothing to do with Anna Jarvis’s creation, nor does it always occur in May. These are just a few of those other Mother’s Days.

1. UK // MOTHERING SUNDAY, FOURTH SUNDAY OF LENT

The name may sound strikingly similar to its American counterpart, but the origins of Mothering Sunday are quite different. By most historical accounts, it was the Church of England that created Mothering Sunday to honor the mothers of England, and later to commemorate the “Mother Church” in all its spiritual nurturing glory. Hundreds of years ago, Christians were expected to make at least one return to their mother church each year. In other words, Mothering Sunday was the ultimate guilt trip to visit the woman or entity that gave them life. Was that so much to ask? The fourth Sunday of Lent became the designated day to make this journey, and remains the go-to holiday to celebrate Moms to this day.

2. THAILAND // MOTHER'S DAY, AUGUST 12

Her Majesty Sirikit the Queen of Thailand is also considered the mother of all her Thai subjects. In light of her royal maternal status, the Thai government made her birthday, August 12, Thailand’s official Mother’s Day in 1976. It remains a national holiday, celebrated countrywide with fireworks and candle-lighting. In related holidays, Father’s Day in Thailand falls on the current King’s birthday, December 5.

3. BOLIVIA // MOTHER'S DAY, MAY 27

During the struggle for independence from Spain in the early 19th century, many of the country's fathers, sons, and husbands were injured and killed on the battlefields. As the history is told to Bolivian students, one group of women from Cochabamba refused to stand idly by; on May 27, they banded together to fight the Spanish Army on Coronilla Hill. Though hundreds died in battle, the legacy of their contributions lives on thanks to a national law passed in the 1920s making the day on which the “Heroinas of Coronilla” took to the streets national Mother’s Day.

4. INDONESIA// MOTHER'S DAY OR WOMEN'S DAY, DECEMBER 22

Made official in 1953 by its president, Indonesia's Mother’s Day falls on the anniversary of the First Indonesian Women’s Congress (1928). The first convening of women in a governmental body is still considered pivotal in launching organized women’s movements throughout Indonesia. The holiday was created to celebrate the contributions of women to Indonesian society.

5. MIDDLE EAST (VARIOUS) // MOTHER'S DAY OR SPRING EQUINOX, MARCH 21

Egyptian journalist Mustafa Amin introduced the idea of a Mother’s Day to his home country, and it quickly spread throughout much of the region. Inspired by a story of a thankless widow ignored by an ungrateful son, Amin and his brother Ali successfully proposed a day in Egypt to honor all mothers. They decided the first day of spring, March 21, was most appropriate to celebrate the ultimate givers of life. It was first celebrated in Egypt in 1956, and is still observed throughout the region from Bahrain to the United Arab Emirates to Iraq.

6. NEPAL // MOTHER PILGRIMAGE FORTNIGHT OR MATA TIRTHA SNAN, LAST DAY OF THE MAISHAKH MONTH (USUALLY BETWEEN LATE APRIL AND EARLY MAY)

Stemming from an ancient Hindu tradition, this festival of honoring mothers is still commonly celebrated in Nepal. The holiday honors both the living and the dead equally. Traditionally, those honoring mothers who have passed away make a pilgrimage to the Mata Tirtha ponds near Kathmandu. A large carnival is also held in the Mata Tirtha village. Children show their mothers appreciation with sweets and gifts.

7. ISRAEL // FAMILY DAY OR THE HOLIDAY FORMERLY KNOWN AS MOTHER'S DAY, 30TH DAY OF SHEVAT (USUALLY FEBRUARY)

Henrietta Szold never had any children of her own, but that didn’t stop her from touching the lives of many young ones. Szold played an active role in the Youth Aliya organization, through which she helped protect many Jewish children from the horrors of the Holocaust. This earned her a reputation as the “mother” of all children. In the 1950s, an 11-year-old girl named Nechama Biedermann wrote to the children’s publication Haaretz Shelanu proposing they make the date of Szold’s death Israel’s national Mother’s Day. The newspaper readily agreed, as did the rest of the country. Despite the shift to a more gender-balanced Family Day, the holiday’s popularity has waned over the years.

8. ETHIOPIA // MOTHER'S DAY OR ANTROSHT, WHEN THE RAINY SEASON ENDS (OCTOBER/NOVEMBER)

Rather than tying themselves down to a specific date, Ethiopians wait out the wet season then trek home for a large, three-day family celebration. This feast is known as “Antrosht.” Unlike some western Mother’s Days, the mother plays a key role in preparing the traditional meals for the festival.

9. FRANCE // MOTHER'S DAY OR FÊTE DES MÈRES, LAST SUNDAY IN MAY

Celebrating a few Sundays later than the rest of the world feels so, well, French. However, according to one blogger, they may have beat all of us to the punch—sort of. France has a storied history of attempts to create a national Mother’s Day. Napoleon tried to mandate a national maternal holiday at the turn of the 19th century. But things ended up not working out so well for him and his holiday. More than a century later, Lyon held its own Mother’s Day celebration to honor women who lost sons to the First World War. It was not until May 24, 1950 that the Fête des Mères became an officially decreed holiday.

(The holiday is mandated to occur on the last Sunday in May. However, if that Sunday is also the Pentecost, then Mother’s Day is pushed to the first Sunday in June.)

10. NICARAGUA // MOTHER'S DAY OR DÍA DE MADRE, MAY 30

In the 1940s, President General Anastasio Somoza Garcia declared Mother’s Day in honor of the birthday of his mother-in-law. Despite its brown-nosing origins, it remains a big deal in Nicaragua.

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