December 10, 2009 — To some, Christmas is about the virgin birth of a heavenly Savior in a feeding trough. To others, it’s a chance to treat strangers like friends, friends like family, and family like personal shoppers. For most of us, though, Christmas is a huge glowing red and green conglomeration of marketing, memory, materialism, and magic. Sure, somewhere in that tangle of Christmas lights is a Christ child that smells like ass (and cow and sheep and camel), and if you strip away some of the layers of wrapping paper, you’ll still find families taking a break from gathering around the television to gather around a twinkling Christmas tree. But, honestly, just as important these days to Christmas are Rankin/Bass puppets, Coca-Cola polar bears, Christmas ghosts, anthropomorphic M&Ms, suicidal Jimmy Stewarts, mall shopping, Star Trek Hallmark ornaments, Santa-Claus-as-celebrity-endorser, eggnog moose mugs, and Bing Crosby duets with David Bowie.
As you can tell, I would have written The Twelve Days of Christmas much differently. In fact, somewhere around day eight, I would have stuck in a team of giant equines with furry feet pulling a beer wagon. That’s right, Christmas also means Clydesdales. And all thanks to the marketing team at a beer company.
Clydesdales originated in Scotland some three centuries ago to be mere work horses. They were bred to have massive strength to pull loads and plows, with coats that made them able to withstand unpleasant climates while doing all that horrible labor. The result of the former was that they grew to gargantuan sizes—the latter, that they sported furred fetlocks called feather.
Strangely, horses are measured in different body parts than most of us are used to...hands instead of feet, but skipping straight to the translation, Clydesdales grow to over six feet in height, taller if you count their heads...which, through another bit of strangeness isn’t traditionally included in their height. They can weigh up to a ton (a God-awful size for a creature not supported by an ocean) and can carry a one-ton load at a steady five miles an hour. By comparison, I can carry one gallon of milk maybe 20 steps. Clydesdales were bred for an unglamorous, humble life, but the very same features that made them fit for that lowly life destined them for glamour and fame. Like Danny Devito.
The association of Clydesdales with the Anheuser-Busch brewing company dates back to 1933. The Great Depression was in full swing, and Prohibition had just been repealed. You know, the best of times, the worst of times. In April of that year, the Busch heirs decided to give their father a present to celebrate the end of Prohibition. It was a team of trained Clydesdales hauling a decorated beer wagon. The effect of the horses was palpable and impressive, a feeling they suddenly realized they wanted associated with their Budweiser brand. Thus, they adopted the majestic Clydesdale as its mascot.
Of course, things don’t count until they get on TV, and the first Budweiser Clydesdales commercial didn’t appear until a couple decades later in 1956. I couldn’t find that commercial online, but here’s a version from like 1967 that’ll work for our purposes. Although not at all a Christmas commercial, in hindsight and complete prejudice, you can see (if you clicked the link) portents of it with the brief snow scene, the red and white of the Budweiser brand, and the general sleigh-and-eight-tiny-reindeer-ness of it.
However, in 1976, Budweiser marketers were able to turn Clydesdales into Christmas icons, and in so doing lucratively cement their brand with the Christmas brand...um, tradition...something really only Coca-Cola and maybe Macy’s has been able to do at that point in culture. I also couldn’t find that commercial online, but here’s a 1986 version. Fair warning, prepare for powerful nostalgia and intense feelings of good will toward man. It’s what Christmas and beer have in common.
These days, Anheuser-Busch breeds their own hundreds-vast herd in various locations across the country, often in the same place where they brew their beer. I happen to live a town over from an Anheuser-Busch plant that has an accompanying Clydesdale stable. The same stable, in fact, that supplied the horses for the original Budweiser Christmas commercial. The plant itself is a massive, blocky building that sits on a river. The giant scarlet “A” with inset eagle that is the company symbol is proudly emblazoned on its front side, and the edifice perennially belches out giant columns of steam from whatever Willy Wonka shenanigans go on inside.
But you don’t need a golden ticket to see inside it. Located at 221 Daniel Webster Highway in Merrimack, NH, the Anheuser-Busch plant is ludicrously visitor-friendly for a place that makes the devil’s brew. It offers daily tours, events, samplings, a gift shop, and one of the better community services I’ve ever heard of—free access to the Clydesdale stables and paddocks.
One day I’m sure I’ll take the plant tour, but higher on my list was the local Budweiser Clydesdales, which I’d been meaning to check out for a while. Every so often I’d see one of their beautifully decaled horse trailers tooling around town on its way to events across the country. The trailers are red with green, white, and gold Budweiser logos and a team of Clydesdales pictured on the side. Christmas for the length of a stoplight.
As I mentioned, you can visit the stables and take pictures of the giant horses in their stalls for free during regular hours; however, the first Saturday of every month (except for January through March) is Clydesdale Camera Day. Between one and three o’clock on those days, they bring out a fully bedecked Clydesdale and you can bring your camera and treat a magnificent species of animal like one of those faceless “beach body” cardboard cutouts, free of charge. It’s a pretty awesome opportunity.
My parents were in town this month, and, since family sits somewhere between inflatable lawn ornaments and Hess trucks on the Christmas tradition scale, I took them with me to see these Christmas/beer icons.
When we pulled into the plant, I was expecting a gate house or security of some kind. It is, after all, a pretty large complex, and beer is serious business. Instead, you just drive right on in, past the plant, past the gift shop, and on to the end of the parking lot where the stables are located. The stables are a picturesque place, far from mere ordinary-looking barns, and are apparently modeled after 18th-century German farmsteads. A row of red-roofed, wreath-festooned, pale yellow buildings with multiple gables and large red doors surround a paved courtyard and abut the white-fenced parcels that are the horse paddocks.
Crossing the courtyard to an enormous barn door marked “Entrance,” I wasn’t sure what to expect on the other side. Eventually, of course, gigantic horses, but I didn’t know what rigmarole I’d have to go through to get to them. It turns out, no rigmarole.
Immediately upon entering, you find yourself along a row of Clydesdale stables...which aren’t like any horse stables I’ve seen. These are more like zoo cages. I guess when you’re dealing with massive, iron-shod monsters, a plywood stall just doesn’t cut it.
A woman directed us around the corner to where a line of cameras with people attached to them was forming. It was a smaller line than I thought it would be, but that could have been because of an imminent snow storm that was being predicted. The line went fast, but I would have been happy had the line been long and slow, as it would have meandered past the aforementioned stalls where horses with names like General and Buck walked around and generally flaunted their physical superiority to us.
Actually, though, there were only a few Clydesdales present that I could see. We were informed that a team of them had been sent down to Virginia for a holiday parade, which was slightly ironic because my parents had come all the way up from that area to see them in New Hampshire.
The horse that pulled camera duty that day was a magnificently rumped creature named Ringo, its mane and tail beribboned in red and white in what seemed a Christmas-y affectation, but in fact was actually just Budweiser-y. However, two nearby wagons that were decorated with Christmas bows, garland, and toys added to the Christmas feel of the colossal Clydesdale itself. I’m not sure exactly how tall Ringo was, but I’m right at six feet, and you can see in the picture how much he looms above me.
The event was pretty casual, and when it was our turn to take pictures, there was less pressure than you’d think there would be with a line of people behind you awaiting their turn for jpg memories. A handler holds the head of the Clydesdale, you step up, pat it on its massive flank, and then pose while whoever you brought along snaps a few pictures of you with the beast while the handler does her best to get out of the frame. After that, you can go on back to see the Clydesdales in their stalls or out in the paddocks...unless the people behind you in line ask you to take their picture for them first.
On our way out one of the staff asked us to sign up for a raffle for a used Clydesdale horseshoe, a giant piece of metal that at more than 20 inches long from end to end and weighing around five pounds screams mystery story murder weapon. It was at that moment that I realized that I really, really, really, really, really wanted a used Clydesdale horseshoe. Like letter-to-Santa want. Heck, like subpoena-to-Santa want. I promise not to kill anyone with it.
Merry Christmas to all.