CLOSE

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."

Original image
iStock
arrow
Lists
7 Surprising Uses for Tequila
Original image
iStock

Happy National Tequila Day! While you could celebrate by having a few drinks, you could also skip the hangover by unlocking one of tequila's amazing abilities outside of a glass. Many spirits are useful for activities beyond sipping (vodka, for example, is a great stain and odor remover), but tequila holds some particularly magical powers. Here are just a few of them.

1. SYNTHETIC BAUBLE

In 2008, a team of scientists in Mexico discovered that when the heated vapor from an 80-proof tequila blanco was combined with a silicon or stainless steel substrate, it resulted in the formation of diamond films. These films can be used in commercial applications, such as electrical insulators, or to create one big fake diamond. Who knew that spending $50 on a bottle of Don Julio was such a wise investment?

2. ALTERNATIVE ENERGY SOURCE

Keeping with the science theme: In 2011, researchers at England’s University of Oxford suggested that we may one day be gassing up our cars with tequila. They identified agave, the plant from which tequila is produced, as a potential biofuel source—and a particularly attractive one, as the plant itself is not consumed by humans and can thrive in desert climates.

3. WEIGHT LOSS SUPPLEMENT

Scientists have long promoted the potential benefits of the agave plant for its ability to help dissolve fats and lower cholesterol. The bad news? These properties get a bit diluted when the plant is distilled into alcohol. Even more so when it's whipped into a sugary margarita.

4. SLEEP AID

Take three or more shots of tequila and you’re bound to pass out. A single shot can have the same effect—just not in that drunken stupor kind of way. Relaxation is one of the positive side effects of tequila drinking; a small amount (1 to 1.5 ounces) before bedtime can reportedly help you fall asleep faster and sleep more soundly.

5. COLON CLEANSER

Too much of a good thing may not bring a welcome turn of events for your liver … but your colon will thank you! Researchers at Mexico’s University of Guadalajara have identified the blue agave as a potentially helpful source for delivering drugs to the colon in order to treat colitis, IBS, Crohn’s disease and even cancer.

6. DIABETES PREVENTATIVE

If Ernest Hemingway had known about the healing properties of tequila, his signature drink might have been a margarita instead of a daiquiri. In 2010, experiments conducted at Mexico’s Polytechnic Institute of Guanajuato revealed that the agave plant (which is high in fructans, a fructose polymer) could stimulate the GLP-1 hormone, aiding in increased insulin production.

7. COLD REMEDY

“Plenty of liquids” is a well-known remedy for getting oneself out from under the weather. But expanding that definition to include a kicked-up shot of tequila makes a day laid out on the couch sound much more appealing. In the 1930s, doctors in Mexico recommended the following concoction to fight off a cold.

.5 ounce of tequila blanco
.5 ounce of agave nectar (to eliminate bacteria and soothe sore throats)
.5 ounce of fresh lime juice (for Vitamin C) 

Though some people (including tequila companies) swear by its healing powers, others say it's hogwash.

Original image
iStock
arrow
Food
11 of the Most Extreme Junk Foods Ever Created
Original image
iStock

It should come as no surprise that National Junk Food Day is traditionally celebrated on July 21—smack dab in the middle of the dog days of summer, when the streets run thick with ice cream trucks and county fairs boast the kind of fried treats that can only be described as “awesome” (both in the modern sense and the more dated, whoa, we are in awe of that usage). But National Junk Food Day shouldn’t be celebrated with commonplace junk food; oh, no, it deserves something far bigger and better. So save your potato chips and chocolate bars for another day, and get ready to try some truly wild treats.

1. THE KFC DOUBLE DOWN

KFC

Perhaps the most unexpectedly clever way to create a new extreme junk food item is to turn a non-junky foodstuff into something that just oozes calories and decadence. Fried chicken giant KFC knew that—and played it up to major effect—when they introduced the KFC Double Down to America back in 2010. The sandwich foregoes the most traditional aspect of any sandwich (the bread!) and substitutes two fried chicken filets. In between the two pieces of chicken? Bacon, two different kinds of cheese, and the Colonel’s “secret sauce.” There’s no room for a bun here, folks.

2. PIZZA HUT'S HOT DOG STUFFED CRUST PIZZA

Pizza Hut

We may associate items like fast food pizza and hot dog-stuffed anything with all-American palates, but cheesy juggernaut Pizza Hut saw things a bit differently. In 2012, the chain introduced a pizza with a hot dog-stuffed crust to our neighbors across the pond, treating their UK customers to the kind of taste sensation some people might have had literal nightmares about. Is it a pizza? Is it a hot dog? Somehow, it’s both—and yet something much more.

3. FRIENDLY'S GRILLED CHEESE BURGERMELT

Friendly's

Once again, a wily restaurant chain took a normal food item—in this case, a hamburger—and amped up its junk factor by doing away with something as commonplace as buns, in favor of an entirely different (and, yes, very junky) item. In 2010, Friendly’s rolled out its very own spin on the Double Down, slamming a regular old burger between not one, but two grilled cheese sandwiches. Who needs buns when you can have four pieces of bread, gooey cheese, and unfathomable amounts of butter?

4. GUY FIERI'S CHEESECAKE CHALLENGE

Whiz-bang chef Guy Fieri has long drawn ire for his more wild culinary creations, but what sets his cuisine apart from that of other junk food aficionados is his steadfast dedication to the key elements of any extreme item: size and odd combinations. Fieri’s “Guy's Cheesecake Challenge” is currently on the menu of his Vegas Kitchen and Bar, but it’s easy enough to replicate at home: Just halve a cheesecake, throw it on a plate, and douse liberally with hot fudge, pretzels, and potato chips. (What, no bacon?)

5. DENNY'S FRIED CHEESE MELT

Denny's

In August 2010, Denny’s introduced the Fried Cheese Melt, a grilled cheese sandwich stuffed with fried mozzarella sticks. Yes, it was served with both French fries and a side of marinara sauce, because it’s important to eat vegetables with every meal.

6. DUNKIN' DONUTS'S GLAZED DONUT BREAKFAST SANDWICH

Dunkin' Donuts

If you’ve ever hit up your local Dunkin' Donuts for breakfast and found yourself stumped when it came time to decide if you wanted a donut or a breakfast sandwich to get your morning motor revving, Dunkin' Donuts came up with a brilliant culinary brainstorm in 2013: the fast food favorite unveiled a breakfast sandwich that used glazed donuts as “bread,” wrapped around bacon and peppered egg.

7. JACK IN THE BOX MUNCHIE MEAL

Jack in the Box
What Jack’s Munchie Meals lack in creativity, they more than make up for in pure, unadulterated size and content. Each Munchie Meal—there are four total—features a massive sandwich (from the Stacked Grilled Cheese Burger to the Spicy Nacho Chicken Sandwich, and all sorts of wild fried things in between) accompanied with two beef tacos, “Halfsies” (a combo of fries and curly fries), and a 20-ounce fountain drink. These intense snack boxes are still available at most Jack in the Box locations, but you’ll have to wait until after 9 p.m. to procure your very own.

8. PIZZA HUT CHEESY BITES REMIX PIZZA

Apparently, there’s nothing that Pizza Hut loves more than using its crust as a delivery system for other junk food items. The hut that pizza built may have crammed hot dogs and hamburgers on to their pie sides, but there was something special about the Cheesy Bites Remix pizza. It featured fried cheese pockets stuffed with three different varieties of extra junk, from spicy seasoning to cream cheese and sesame to mozzarella and parmesan.

9. DEEP FRIED BUTTER

County and state fairs have long been hotbeds (sizzling, oily hotbeds) of wild, deep-frying invention. Dunking things in batter and then tossing them into a vat of oil is a nifty way to turn almost anything into a delicious crisp pocket of junky decadence, perfect for utensil-free eating—but that doesn’t mean that everything needs to get the deep-fried treatment. While deep-fried Oreos may be a stroke of brilliance, deep fried butter is just plain madness. Here’s a quick test: If you wouldn’t eat something if it weren’t deep-fried, don’t eat it if it is deep-fried. When was the last time you ate an entire stick of butter? See? Point proven.

10. THE BACON BUN BURGER

Not content to have a bacon sandwich between two chicken filets? Is a grilled cheese bun replacement not for you? Then try making your very own hamburger buns out of bacon. Carbs are bad for you, right?

11. FRIED ICE CREAM SANDWICH

The Florida State Fair is the proud home of the first fried ice cream sandwich, a junky treat that bears a name that doesn’t even begin to explain what it holds between its buns. It’s not a fried ice cream sandwich so much as a bacon cheeseburger (technically a sandwich) topped with a ball of fried ice cream. It might be a good meal for multi-taskers—no need to worry about dessert—but it doesn’t sound like the kind of thing good for anything else.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios