An Uncle Remus Christmasby Jim Korkis, contributing writer
For this holiday season, IDW Publishing has fulfilled one of my long term Christmas wishes and released a hardcover book titled Disney Christmas Classics
Yes, all the comic strips are in black and white, exactly as they originally appeared in newspapers every holiday season.
Frank A. Reilly managed Disney's comic strip department for 29 years, from 1946 to his retirement in 1975. He wrote stories for the Sunday-only Disney comic strip Walt Disney's Treasury of Classic Tales, as well as all of the stories for the Disney Christmas strips, until his retirement.
Basically, the Disney Christmas strip, featuring a plethora of classic Disney animated characters interacting together, was designed to run daily every week for four weeks—or roughly 20-plus installments total. It told a complete story with usually the final installment running on December 24, with Santa on his way to deliver his presents.
Generally, the strips did not appear on the regular comic strip page, which would have forced a favorite strip to go missing for several weeks, but usually elsewhere in the newspaper encouraging eager readers to flip through the pages and stumble on the holiday advertisements.
That first story was Peter Pan's Christmas Story, written by Reilly with artwork by Manuel Gonzales. It began November 26 and ended December 24, 1960. Another 27 stories would follow from 1961 to 1987. A second series of six holiday strips ran from 1992-1997 and focused on the then-recent Disney animated feature films, like Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast.
Actually the hardcover book has a complete collection except for one missing year: 1986. It was not the case that they couldn't find a printable copy of that material.
It was simply that the Walt Disney Company would love for everyone to completely forget that their animated feature film Song of the South (1946) ever existed. Failing that seemingly impossible task, the company would love to eliminate or minimize any and all references to the film, even though it inspired one of the most popular Disney theme park attractions: Splash Mountain.
For my book Who's Afraid of the Song of the South? (Theme Park Press 2012) Disney Legend Floyd Norman told me the following story about the Christmas comic strip for that missing year:
"I had already written stories based on the standard Disney characters, including the wonderful Dalmatians from the film of the same name [Cruella's Very Furry Christmas, 1985]. But, I was getting bored with the typical holiday stuff, and wanted to try something new, different, and perhaps even a little dangerous.
"Could I possibly convince the powers that be at Disney to let me craft a story using the funny, clever and outrageous characters from Song of the South?
"As you might have imagined, Disney was skittish about raising any awareness of a movie they had been trying to bury for years. And, while Disney's view of the South, on which Joel Chandler Harris based his delightful stories, might be considered naive, they were never malicious or offensive.
"Decades after its first release, I assumed we all lived in a more enlightened society. The Civil Rights battles of the 1960s had been won and people of color had taken their rightful place in society. Black people in motion pictures were no longer porters and maids. Funny, confident, and edgy characters, like Eddie Murphy, had replaced bug-eyed comedic actors like Mantan Moreland.
"It was now the 1980s, and I hoped that Disney was willing to uncover the wonderful legacy kept hidden for so many years. Could delightful characters like Br'er Rabbit, Br'er Fox and Br'er Bear be enjoyed by a new generation? This was the question I would take to my bosses at Disney.
"Disney was under a new forward-thinking management. Perhaps my timing was right, or maybe I just got lucky. In any case, I was given the go ahead with my story titled A Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah Christmas (December 1986).
"The story opens with the kids, Johnny and Jenny coming to Uncle Remus with a problem. The chances of a snowfall in the South are pretty slim, they say. How can they truly enjoy Christmas without snow? This gives Uncle Remus the perfect opportunity to spin another of his Br'er Rabbit tales. It seems the clever rabbit had a similar complaint, and his quest for a white Christmas led him into a world of trouble.
"Not surprisingly, that trouble involved another run in with Br'er Fox and Br'er Bear. The story wraps up with Br'er Rabbit escaping the clutches of his captors, and learning his lesson about the real meaning of Christmas.
"The story was submitted, and all appeared to be going well. I even removed the southern dialect from Uncle Remus, and only allowed the critters to retain their colorful dialogue. I was willing to give the illiterate former slave some 'polish' as long as I could keep the rabbit, fox and bear in character.
"As you could imagine, the editors at the [King Features] newspaper syndicate were aghast when they received the story. How could Disney submit such a racially insensitive story for publication? I wish I could have seen their faces when they were informed that the writer was black.
"The story did end up running in newspapers in 1986 with no complaints. Keith Moseley penciled it and Larry Mayer inked it. Yet, four decades after it first premiered, Disney's Song of the South was apparently still a very controversial topic. It remains so today nearly 65 years after audiences first enjoyed it."
However, other than residing in the Disney Archives for 30 years, or in the collections of Disney fans who dutifully clipped each strip out of the newspaper three decades ago, this story of Br'er Rabbit told by Uncle Remus was extinguished from the Disney universe.
Norman had picked Uncle Remus and his characters not only because he loved the film, but because, in 1986, the Disney company re-released Song of the South on November 15 to celebrate the film's 40th anniversary. He figured it would help support the film during the holiday season, which is why executives at the company probably allowed it. It was the last time Disney would release the film theatrically in the United States.
He worked with the restriction of only having three panels a day and having to use the first panel to recap the story for those who may have missed previous strips. Norman also had to write the strip for "all ages," but with a particular inclination for younger readers so had to keep it simple.
At the risk of corrupting today's youth, here is a summary of those 21 strips:
Strip 1: As Christmas draws near, Mrs. Claus finds a troubled Santa Claus reading through a stack of letters in his office. When she asks what is wrong, he replies, "Hmmm…this letter from Johnny and Jenny. Our young friends have a problem! I wish I had time to help. Wait a minute! I know just the person to get them back on the right track.
Strip 2: "Who can help the children, dear?" asks Mrs. Claus and Santa replies, "Why Uncle Remus, of course! I'll get the word to him right away!" The scene then shifts to the outside of Uncle Remus' cabin where he is singing "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah" and nailing a Christmas wreath to his front door. Remus must have been on a diet because the white-bearded storyteller is incredibly thin. Johnny and Jenny run up to him and Remus says, "Christmas so close and such long faces?" Johnny whines, "Who wants to be happy?" Jenny adds, "Some Christmas this is going to be!"
Strip 3: Uncle Remus rocks back and forth in his rocking chair as he asks, "Now what's this about Christmas?" A pig-tailed Jenny explains, "Christmas is going to be just awful this year!" A blonde-haired Johnny says, "Yeah! How can we have Christmas when we don't have any snow?" But Remus just chuckles, "You know, that's exactly the words of ol' Br'er Rabbit one Christmas years ago!" The children beg him to tell the story.
Strip 4: "What happened, Uncle Remus?" asks Johnny. "Was Br'er Rabbit unhappy about Christmas, too?" inquires Jenny. Remus explains, "Oh, he liked Christmas all right, but not this particular Christmas! As a matter of fact his Christmas spirits were as low as they could be…" The scene shifts to Remus leaning on a fence as an angry Br'er Rabbit slams the door to his rabbit hole. "Merry Christmas, Br'er Rabbit!" smiles Remus but Br'er Rabbit fumes, "Christmas! Hmph! There's not gonna be no Christmas this year 'cause we've got no snow!"
Strip 5: A wise Uncle Remus explains, "Br'er Rabbit, don't you know there's a whole lot more to Christmas than just snow on the ground?" An angry Br'er Rabbit hold up a card with the picture of a cabin and trees in the woods covered in snow. "Look at this Christmas card! Does anything round here look like this? NO!" Nearby behind a tree, Br'er Bear and Br'er Fox overhear the conversation and the wily fox says, "Hear that, Br'er Bear? Hear that?"
Strip 6: Br'er Rabbit with his bindle on a stick hops away from Uncle Remus who is leaning on his cane (which hasn't appeared earlier). "Good-bye, Uncle Remus! I'm not coming back until I find me some snow!" Br'er Fox and Br'er Bear also run away. "Hee! Hee!" laughs the fox. "I'm gonna ketch that Br'er Rabbit this time! He's gonna be my Christmas present to Me!" But Br'er Bear replies, "But Br'er Fox…Brer Rabbit is too fast to ketch!" A confident fox explains, "We won't have to ketch him. He's gonna ketch himself!"
Strip 7: "Unable to accept no less than a White Christmas, Ol' Br'er Rabbit leaves home in search of snow" states a caption of the rabbit happily hopping along while singing "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah". Br'er Rabbit stops and is surprised, "I can't believe it!" Br'er Bear is shivering under a flurry of snow: "Yoo-hoo! Br'er Rabbit! Do you have a scarf I kin borrow? It sure is cold!" A disbelieving rabbit says, "It – It's snowing!"
Strip 8: A confused Br'er Rabbit says, "Br'er Bear! How come it's snowing over there and not over here?" The bear replies, "I reckon y'all better come over an' find out, Br'er Rabbit!" The next panel reveals Br'er Fox holding a bag of grits balancing himself on a limb of a tree over the bear and sprinkling the grits. "Hee! Hee! This sack of grits makes a perfect snowfall!" he exults. Br'er Rabbit's curiosity gets the best of him and he runs toward Br'er Bear. "I needs that snow to make it a real Christmas!"
Strip 9: However when he reaches Br'er Bear, the bear starts chuckling as Br'er Rabbit feels the snow. "Hey! What kind of snow is this?" On the overhead limb, Br'er Fox lowers a rope with a noose. "I'm gonna get him this time! I jus' know it. GOTCHA!" The noose tightens around the rabbit's body, pining his arms to his side as he yells, "HELP! Lemme go!"
Strip 10: A proud Br'er Fox as he holds the tied-up Br'er Rabbit says, "Looky here, Br'er Bear. A Christmas guest just dropped in." A smiling bear adds, "Yeah! Hee! Hee! Won't you stay around for dinner, Br'er Rabbit?" The fox says, "That's right! 'Cause we'd just love to have YOU for Christmas dinner!"
Strip 11: The caption states, "As the sun sets on Chick-a-Pen Hill, ol' Br'er Fox and Br'er Bear settle down for the night. But it is not a happy Christmas Eve for Br'er Rabbit. He has learned a lesson all right but maybe too late…" As Br'er Fox and Br'er Bear have a pleasant sleep, a distraught Br'er Rabbit, tied by a rope held by Br'er Bear, sits on a rock and moans, "Uncle Remus was right! I should have listened!"
Strip 12: As Br'er Rabbit sits on the rock, snow starts miraculously falling. "Instead of a White Christmas, it's gonna be a Red-Hot Christmas when I goes into that stew pot. What's THAT? It's starting to snow. And this time it's not Br'er Fox's grits. Snow got me INTO trouble…maybe it can get me OUT!"
Strip 13: The caption states: "Br'er Rabbit has been captured by Br'er Fox and Br'er Bear. Now, it's Christmas Eve and suddenly it begins to snow…" Br'er Rabbit holds out his hand to let the snowflakes pile up. "This real snow gives me an idea! I'm gonna build me a snowman!" The caption explains: "And build one he does. Soon it looks exactly like Santa Claus!" Br'er Rabbit smiles as he finishes the Santa snowman with its left hand waving and carrying a huge sack. "Wait till they see this!"
Strip 14: A triumphant Br'er Rabbit stands admiring his handiwork. "That's a right fine Santa Claus, if I do say so myself. This old hollow log will sure fool Br'er Fox and Br'er Bear." The rabbit yells into the log and the low echoing sound is "Ho! Ho! Ho! Merry Christmas!"
Strip 15: The caption says, "Christmas morning and ol' Br'er Bear is suddenly awakened…" Br'er Bear hears the "Ho! Ho! Ho!" And goes to investigate and sees Br'er Rabbit's snow sculpture. "It – It's him! It's Santa Claus!"
Strip 16: "I've been good this year, Santa Claus!" cries Br'er Bear to the Santa snowman. However, Br'er Rabbit yells into the hollow log, "You haven't caught any helpless little animals, have you, Br'er Bear?" A smiling bear unties the rope holding Br'er Rabbit as he sputters, "Oh, no, sir, Santa Claus! I wouldn't do anything like THAT!"
Strip 17: The commotion wakes an irritated Br'er Fox who sees the bear untying the rope. "Wha-? Huh? What are you DOING? You big dummy! Why did you let Br'er Rabbit git away?" A delighted Br'er Bear answers, "Look, Br'er Fox! It's Santa Claus!" The fuming fox kicks the snow sculpture apart. "Dis ain't no Santa Claus, you fool! You've been TRICKED!"
Strip 18: As Br'er Rabbit hops away, he waves and says, "Bye, y'all! Merry Christmas!" An angry Br'er Fox declares, "He's done it AGAIN! That Br'er Rabbit has made fools of us. THAT DOES IT! Br'er Bear, what is you gonna do about this?" Br'er Bear holds a stocking and says, "I'm gonna hang up my Christmas stockin' fo' Santa Claus!" Br'er Fox slaps his head and falls backward.
Strip 19: The caption over a picture of Br'er Rabbit hanging ornaments on his Christmas tree inside his home says, "Well, from that day till this, ol' Br'er Rabbit never again complained about not having snow for Christmas…" The scene shifts back to Uncle Remus' porch where he tells Johnny and Jenny, "He learned that you can't go searching for something on the OUTSIDE to make it Christmas because SOMETHING is what you find INSIDE yourself!"
Strip 20: Johnny says, "We understand, Uncle Remus!" Jenny adds, "With or without snow, we'll make this a wonderful Christmas!" Suddenly Br'er Rabbit hops by in front of them saying, "And a Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah Day!" Johnny cries, "It's Br'er Rabbit!" while a surprised Remus says, "Well, I'll be!" In the final panel Johnny and Jenny look out from the porch and see that it is snowing. Johnny says, "Oh, look! It's starting to snow!" Jenny cries, "Johnny…I think I hear Santa Claus!"
Strip 21: Johnny, Jenny, and Uncle Remus look up in the sky while a smiling Remus says, "Looks like Christmas is going to be MIGHTY SATISFACTUAL!" Br'er Rabbit joins them to see Santa Claus in his sleigh with his reindeer saying "Merry Christmas to Everyone…Everywhere!" In the lower-righthand corner is a silhouette of a mad Br'er Fox wielding a club chasing Br'er Bear.
If you think it is odd to have Uncle Remus and his characters celebrate Christmas, actually there have been some other references over the decades.
A collection of short stories titled Nights With Uncle Remus by Joel Chandler Harris (1883) includes Chapter 71: "The Night Before Christmas" where Uncle Remus sings a Christmas dance song: "My honey. My love. My heart's delight. Mr. Bullfrog yelled come light up my pipe. Turn left. Turn right. We'll dance all night." While several critters are mentioned in the song, Br'er Rabbit was not one of them and there really is no reference to Christmas.
In Christmas 1981, Turks and Caicos issued a series of postage stamps featuring scenes of Br'er Rabbit, Br'er Bear, and Br'er Fox from Disney's Song of the South in the hopes that collectors would purchase the treasures and never use them as intended so the money would just remain with their postal service.
Br'er Rabbit's Christmas Carol (1992) is a 58 minute (non-Disney) animated direct-to-video special. It was co-produced, co-written and co-directed by Al Guest and Jean Mathieson for Magic Shadows, Inc. on a budget of $550,000. The animation was done in Manila and Guangzhou, China.
However, an obscure Disney connection is that Miz Possum is voiced by Ginny Tyler, who was named a Disney Legend in 2006 for her storytelling narration on Disney records, as well as being the head Mouseketeer hostess when the original Mickey Mouse Club was syndicated on Los Angeles television in 1963.
Br'er Fox is the Scrooge surrogate in this story. He is an abusive landlord and, in fact, intends to evict poor Br'er Bear from his cave on Christmas Day. Br'er Fox also sells his firewood to the other animals for exorbitant prices or else they go cold.
Using the props and stage for a local production of A Christmas Carol to benefit sick Timmy Mouse (who substitutes for Tiny Tim), Br'er Rabbit decides to gather some of the animal townspeople together to teach Br'er Fox a lesson by tricking him into thinking the ghost of his friend, Br'er Wolf, who died two years ago has returned.
That ghost warns Br'er Fox to change his miserly ways by showing him his past, present and future Christmases. They use hand shadows, a fake ghost made out of a large cross, jack-o-lantern head and a sheet and lift up the legs of Br'er Fox's bed to create the illusion of him being elevated.
Good-hearted Br'er Bear hears the ruckus and rushes over to save his neighbor from ghosts even though Br'er Fox has been unkind to him.
Br'er Fox is so terrified by the experience that he throws a big Christmas party for the whole town and promises to help little Timmy. Br'er Gator shows up in a Santa Claus outfit just to show everyone that he shouldn't be feared.
At this holiday season, may all of us remember the lesson of Uncle Remus from the Disney Christmas comic strip that Christmas is really what is inside of us, not all the outside trappings. Merry Christmas!