Christmas Classic “I Want a Hippopotamus” Turns 70 This Year

One little girl’s charming song led to a campaign funded by children's pocket change to bring a hippo to the Oklahoma City Zoo.

Mathilda the hippo (Courtesy Oklahoma History Center)

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In 1953, 10-year-old Gayla Peevey didn’t want a doll or Tinkertoys for Christmas. She wanted her very own hippo, according to her holiday hit, “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas.” As far-fetched as it seems, Peevey’s wish came true, thanks to the children in her native state of Oklahoma.

Judy Smith was one of those children. Smith says she knew of Peevey before the song became a hit because the singer performed at Oklahoma City events and sang on the local radio station. After the song’s release, everyone knew who Peevey was, though.

“When the song came out, it got quite a bit of play around Oklahoma City,” Smith recalls, adding that although her family didn’t have a lot of records at the time, they had “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas.”

After Peevey sang the song (penned by John Rox) on The Ed Sullivan Show, the Oklahoma City Zoo devised a campaign to get her the hippo she boldly hoped for. Through newspapers, radio stations, and Oklahoma schools, the zoo asked children to contribute their spare change to bring a hippo to the city.

Gayla Peevey sings “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas” (Uploaded to YouTube by Ciumpy’s Radio Music)

Smith thinks she and her brother probably only donated a few pennies, but she still felt proud to have helped bring a hippo to the zoo. Later, she and her brother would give money in the same way to help bring an elephant to the zoo; the city’s children (coincidentally) voted to name her Judy.

Similarly, the Parkhurst family sent son L.G. to first grade with money to donate on behalf of himself and his 3-year-old brother, Mark. “I don’t remember how much we gave to bring Mathilda, but I do remember we each gave a dime for Judy the elephant a few years later,” Mark says.

In total, the zoo raised $3,952.16 to bring a 1½-year-old Nile hippo named Mathilda from the Central Park Zoo in New York City to the Oklahoma City Zoo on Christmas Eve morning that year. Peevey climbed on top of the crate and peered inside before watching zookeepers move Mathilda into her pen.

Gayle Peevey getting a close-up view of Mathilda’s arrival (Courtesy Oklahoma History Center)

“Of course, we couldn’t keep her in our garage [as the song suggests] so the zoo very graciously agreed to keep her for me,” Peevey says with a laugh.

Mathilda spent the next 45 years at the Oklahoma City Zoo where she was later joined by her mate, Norman. Together, they had nine offspring. During those years, Smith and Parkhurst visited Mathilda several times with their families.

“It was always exciting to see her because we helped bring her to the zoo,” Parkhurst says.

While Mathilda passed in 1998, “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas” remains a holiday favorite.

“I really attribute it to the fact that it’s just a good song,” Peevey explains. “It’s really an interesting melody, and it was a song that fit my voice. Everything just worked.”

Julian Frazier (Oklahoma City Zoo director at the time) and Gayla Peevey looking at the habitat being constructed for Mathilda, December 11, 1953 (Oklahoma History Center)

As a testament to the original’s magic, Peevey’s version still dominates the airwaves every year, even though other artists, including the Three Stooges and Gretchen Wilson, have covered it.

Soon after “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas” climbed the Billboard charts, peaking at No. 24, Peevey’s family moved to San Diego so she could live a more normal life away from her celebrity status in Oklahoma. Eventually, she earned a degree in elementary education and later opened a small advertising business.

At some point, interest in the song faded, and Peevey herself says she had almost forgotten about it until about 10 to 15 years ago. That’s when she suspects people began hearing it on satellite radio because she started getting phone calls for interviews. In 2016, after the United States Postal Service featured “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas” in its holiday advertising campaign, the song’s popularity skyrocketed.

Forty-six-year-old Kristi Gilbert, a local government professional from Fort Worth, is one of the song’s superfans. Although she remembers hearing the song as a child, she became “attached to it” about 15 years ago when she cranked up the song to lighten the mood on a stressful day at work. Since then, she blasts the song at work or uses it to “drive my husband and kids bonkers” every holiday season.

“You can’t help but be happy when you hear that song,” she says. “It’s so goofy, and with the horns, you know it the instant it comes on.”

Mark Parkhurst loves the song, too. In addition to having the 45-rpm record, he has a Hallmark ornament that plays part of the song, a blow-up hippo lawn decoration, several stuffed hippos, and the children’s book featuring the song’s lyrics. “I still love the song,” he explains.

Peevey can’t believe all the interest the song continues to generate today.

“I’m amazed that this is going full blast after all these years,” she says. “I’m 80 years old, and people are asking me to sing it.”

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  1. I’m a hippo collector for just over 30 years. A friend gave me a stuffed hippo that sings the song. So much fun.

  2. It’s a catchy, cute, kind of novelty song. I brought it up separately on YouTube as its been labeled ‘unavailable’ and ‘private’ here. It might be 70 years old, but was totally new to me. Honestly, I’d never heard it or of it until today.


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