The Jewish Cartoonists Who Reinvented Christmas

Pay close attention as you watch Paramount Pictures’ classic holiday animations: You may spot a six-pointed star on the Christmas tree.

Paramount Pictures

Every year around this time, Jewish parents do their best to avoid the onslaught of elves and flying reindeer. They send their kids to school with little bags of dreidels and gelt and try to create some Hanukkah spirit, hoping there won’t be any tears when Santa passes over their houses. If they’re lucky, their kids might ask—as Slate writer Dahlia Lithwick’s son did—whether Judah Maccabee could beat Santa in a fight.

But last weekend, my husband and I let our children watch a series of classic Christmas cartoons from Paramount Pictures. Both our kids are under 4 years old and we figured we could wait another year to introduce them to the December dilemma. We were all enjoying the animations—they were witty and fast-paced, a world away from the earnest creepiness of Polar Express. Then, a few segments in, we noticed a strange ornament dangling from a branch:

After that, my husband and I started paying closer attention to the names in the credits. Adolph Zukor presents a Max Fleischer Color Classic. Animation by Seymour Kneitel. Music and lyrics by Sammy Zimberg and Bob Rothberg. At the same time as Hitler was trying to scrub Europe of Jewish influence, millions of American children were watching Christmas cartoons created by European Jews. Did they even notice the Star of David on the tree?

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It’s no secret that Jews more or less built Hollywood. The founders of Paramount, Universal, MGM, Fox, and Warner Brothers were all European Jewish immigrants. So was Max Fleischer, the man who created Betty Boop and animated Popeye (and invented a revolutionary technology called rotoscoping). As Neal Gabler notes in his book An Empire of Their Own, the film industry was one of the few that would let these men in. There were no snobbish social barriers, and they could get into the business by buying a movie theater for a few hundred dollars.

But there’s another reason these new Americans were drawn to entertainment, as Gabler explains:

If Jews were proscribed from entering the real corridors of gentility and status in America, the movies offered an ingenious exception. Within the studios and on the screen, the Jews could simply create a new country—an empire of their own, so to speak—one where they would not only be admitted but would govern as well. They would fabricate their empire in the image of America … They would create its values and myths, its traditions and archetypes.

You can see this in a 1936 Max Fleischer cartoon called “Christmas Comes But Once a Year.” It’s set in an orphanage, where a bunch of big-eyed children rush down to empty their stockings, only to find a bunch of useless, broken-down toys. They’re lying on the floor sobbing when a jolly, bearded man rolls by in a motorized sleigh marked Prof. Grampy, Inventor. “It’s looking like a pretty gloomy Christmas for those poor kids,” he says. “What can I do?” So he climbs in the kitchen window and rushes around, piling up all the dishes and appliances. After a few minutes, he’s made a set of wonderful new toys to give the happy children.

It’s funny watching him turn teapots into train sets, but there’s a note of real pathos, too. For the men listed on the credits, a house full of crying orphans wasn’t an abstract idea. All of them had family living in Nazi-occupied territories. Adolph Zukor, the founder of Paramount, had lost both his parents as a small child in Hungary and emigrated on his own when he was 16. But these filmmakers also knew about ingenuity, and that’s what their Christmas fable was all about.

I never planned on making Santa Claus part of our annual winter traditions. But Professor Grampy just might find his way into our living room again. If he does, I’ll tell my children all about the men who made him—the traveling inventors who came to America empty-handed and managed to create something close to magic. Even without flying reindeer, it’s a pretty good story.