This year it’s our privilege to present a treasure trove of Christmas cards from the archives of the legendary Arnold Roth. Each of his cards is a masterpiece of design, composition and humor, and we talked to Roth about the process he uses to create them and what the holiday means to him. (Below his cards are some holiday-related oddities, so be sure to scroll all the way down.)
Hogan’s Alley: What inspired you to begin creating your own Christmas cards each year? After all, you stay plenty busy, so it’s not like you have all this spare time.
Arnold Roth: I started to freelance in 1951. At that time, sending a Christmas greeting to clients and prospective customers served the purposes of celebration of the holiday spirit and a reminder of the senders and the service they might provide. In the case of artists, it also serves as a portfolio piece that displayed their particular approach to the subject matter.
The first one I sent–in 1952 or ’53–was the bird walking into the fellow’s yap. It made sort of a hit, and most recipients remembered it. “All I could taste all through to New Year’s was feathers!” was the usual reaction. I never had known how many people knew what feathers tasted like.
I have always, and still do, favored the ideas and good feelings of Christmas, though I am not a Christian. My wife is. Combining our lists, we eventually sent 600 cards every years–always in a stamped envelope–for many decades. Due to attrition and being long-lived, the list has swindled to about 450. It’s a fairly arduous exercise, but a rewarding one.
People reply–usually in their following year’s greeting–“I think I understood the idea of your card.” “That’s another Christmas you ruined for our entire family!” “Your card is still pinned to our mantle. Nobody has figured it out yet!” Oh, me! I mean well–and it’s better than the taste of feathers. I guess.
HA: Is there a certain time of the year when you begin working on that year’s card?
Roth: I try to get the paste-up to the copiers by mid-November, but it can be mid-December. Last-minute, nerve-wracking deadlines are no strangers in my life. I do the drawing, reduce it to size on my copier–lessening the quality of the line, sometimes–and paste four copies on an 8 1/2 by 11 sheet. A professional copy printer prints and cuts the cardstock sheets. I sign them. My wife and I envelope and stamp–she addresses most of them. Another Christmas ruined for friends, clients and aged ingestors of feathers.
HA: I notice that some of your cards have a topical aspect, like the Muslim bringing Islamic-style greetings in 2003. But overall, there’s not a lot of topical commentary. How do you decide when to incorporate commentary into your card?
Roth: I try to do an idea that connects to something that had occurred that year, from world politics to family occurrences. Last year’s  indicated voters, who don’t usually vote, turning out for the Obama election. Some years, it’s just Christmas.
HA: Some of your cards are undated. Clearly, you weren’t thinking of future archivists when you designed them!
Roth: My most intense professional concentration has always been producing cartoon drawings. As an individual producer, it was incumbent on me to keep orderly financial books. Everything else was left to some future where it would sort itself out. That wasn’t a conscious choice. Necessity dictated it. Hiring someone to create order was not practical. It seemed that by the time I advised someone else what was what, etc., I might as well do it. Of course, being bent over a drawing board every day for long hours precluded doing much of anything else. Eventually the disorder caught up to me.
Early on I could remember which Christmas card followed the others. But I stayed in business so long and became so unexpectedly successful that confusion and guesswork replaced accurate memory. So I started dating them. Many people claim to have saved them all. Many people are smarter than I am.
HA: In the card from 1991, what is Santa putting in the stockings? Condoms?
Roth: Yes! With the spread of HIV and the burgeoning of population everywhere, the placement of condoms next to the candies in front of the cash registers in family drugstores–they were the perfect gift for everyone who didn’t catch everything. Yet! And it would be a strange-looking child who could slip one over its head.
HA: You produced two designs for 1999. Did you have two designs you particularly liked, or are you just a hopeless workaholic?
Roth: My wife wanted an alternative to send to aged, more conservative, easily shocked and/or disgusted folks. Now, I can’t remember which was which.
HA: Your Santa Claus is something of a dissolute free spirit. In that sense, is he a stand-in for Arnold Roth?