Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

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Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

"The most famous reindeer of all," Rudolph has become a vital ingredient of Christmas lore for generations of children around the world, but few people recall the true genesis of the story. Fewer still would be able to explain how much the original Rudolph fable has been changed by the efforts of songwriters and animators through the decades since its 1939 conception. Yet such is the enduring popularity of this tale in its myriad forms that sociologist James Barnett declared Rudolph the twentieth-century Christmas symbol "most likely to become a lasting addition" to Christmas folklore.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was the brainchild of Robert L. May, a 35-year-old advertising copywriter for the Chicago-based Montgomery Ward department store. In 1939, May was commissioned by his supervisor to create an original Christmas story that the store could give away to shoppers at holiday time. May was tapped in part for his affinity for children's limericks, the form in which the first Rudolph iteration was written.

Drawing on his own childhood experiences (he had experienced ridicule because of his slight frame), May dreamed up a title character who was ostracized by his fellow reindeer because of his glowing red nose. For an alliterative name, he originally suggested Rollo, but this idea was rejected by the Montgomery Ward catalog department. After briefly considering Reginald, May finally settled on Rudolph as the moniker for his creation, a name reputedly arrived at with the help of his four-year-old daughter.

The first Rudolph booklet, with illustrations by Denver Gillen, was distributed to two and a quarter million Montgomery Ward customers during Christmas of 1939. Although quite popular, it was not released again until 1946 due to wartime paper shortages, but by the end of that year, a total of six million copies had been distributed nationwide.

The story of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer that these initial customers enjoyed was quite different from the one that would be immortalized in later versions. In May's original poem, Rudolph is not one of Santa's reindeer—at least, not at first. He is an ordinary reindeer living with his family in an obscure village, and although he is ostracized by some of his companions for his glowing red nose, he maintains a positive self-image and has the loving support of his parents. He hooks up with Santa only after the corpulent gift-giver's reindeer team arrives at Rudolph's house one particularly foggy Christmas Eve. Upon noticing his beaming honker, Santa enlists Rudolph to lead his beleaguered team. Rudolph does so with great skill and bravery, prompting Santa to congratulate him upon the team's safe return with the words, "By you last night's journey was actually bossed. / Without you, I'm certain we'd all have been lost."

It was in this form that Rudolph first became an icon for wartime Christmas celebrants and a lucrative marketing tool for Montgomery Ward. It made little money for May, however, until 1947, when he persuaded Montgomery Ward president Sewed Avery to transfer the copyright to him. With these rights secured, May set about building the next generation of Rudolphiana. In 1947, a nine-minute Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer cartoon, directed by Popeye creator Max Fleisher, played in movie theaters nationwide. Two years later, May commissioned his brother-in-law Johnny Marks to write a song based on the Rudolph character. The song, which glossed over many of the key details of May's original story, became an immense hit for vocalist Gene Autry, selling two million copies in 1949 and joining "White Christmas" in the pantheon of Yuletide standards. In 1952, a now wealthy May quit his job at Montgomery Ward to manage the Rudolph business full-time.

In 1964, the stop-motion animation house of Rankin and Bass produced a new Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer TV special that solidified the legend—again in altered form—in the minds of baby-boom viewers. In this new version, narrated by bearded songster Burl Ives, Rudolph is a miserable, self-loathing creature rejected even by his status-conscious parents. The "other reindeer" who taunt him are no longer peers from his village but Santa's actual reindeer, who compete among themselves for the old man's favor. Even Santa himself seems a little ashamed of Rudolph's deformity, and it is only after Rudolph links up with a society of "misfit toys" and proves himself as the head of the sleigh team that he earns the respect of those around him.

This new iteration of the Rudolph legend was to prove almost as popular as the previous ones. In its own way, it was certainly more influential. The innovative stop-motion techniques devised by Rankin-Bass inspired a generation of animators, most prominent among them Tim Burton, who paid homage to Rudolph in his 1993 feature The Nightmare before Christmas. The hit movie Toy Story and the popular MTV series Celebrity Death Match both showed the influence of the Rankin-Bass Rudolph as well.

The 1964 Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer special continues to generate huge television ratings for its annual holiday broadcast, and the Gene Autry song recording, among many other renditions, is a staple of every radio station's Yuletide music programming. Robert L. May's prototypical creation was commemorated in 1990 with thepublication of a handsome facsimile edition—the first time the story had been offered for sale in its original form. Rudolph's fans have thus had many ways in which to appreciate this enduring icon of Americana.

—Robert E. Schnakenberg

Further Reading:

Archibald, John J. "Rudolph's Tale Left Him Cold." St. Louis Post-Dispatch. December 6, 1989, 3E.

Frankel, Stanley A. "The Story behind Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." Good Housekeeping. December 1989, 126.

Lillard, Margaret. "Rudolph Lit Up Creator's Career." Los Angeles Times. December 17, 1989, A7.

Lollar, Kevin. "Reginald the Red-Nosed Reindeer?" Gannett News Service. December 21, 1989.

Murphy, Cullen. "Rudolph Redux." Atlantic Monthly. August1990, 18.