Every Christmas holiday season since 1964, children have enjoyed watching the longest running Christmas special in TV history, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”.
The show’s fans know well the story’s plot. Born with a shiny, red nose, the reindeer named Rudolph is viewed as a misfit by “all of the other reindeer” at the North Pole, but becomes a hero by guiding Santa’s sleigh through a disabling storm with his luminescent nose at Christmas, thus successfully delivering gifts to boys and girls all across the world.
Years before Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer premiered on TV, a Montgomery Ward ad man created the story. In 1939, the company decided to come up with an in-house Christmas theme book instead of making available children’s coloring books, and assigned Robert May to write an animal story. May found inspiration for the story from “A Visit From Santa Claus” by Clement Clark Moore and “The Ugly Duckling” by Hans Christian Anderson.
That same year, children picked up for free 2.4 millions copies of May’s illustrated, 32-page book at Montgomery Ward stores. The company planned to have available 1.6 million copies in 1940, however, the plan was scrapped because of World War II paper shortages. In 1946, the company made available 3.6 million copies of May’s book.
In 1949, songwriter Johnny Marks (May’s brother-in-law) turned the popular story into a song. Gene Autry recorded “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer”. In the first year, the song sold two million copies.
The commercial success of May’s book allowed him to leave his job at Montgomery Ward in 1951, however, in seven years he would return to the store for employment. In 1971, May died, five years after retiring from Montgomery Ward.
Have you ever wondered how the reindeer came to be the animal chosen to pull Santa’s flying sleigh in story and song?
Winter festivals and traditions intertwined with Christian celebrations of Christmas in the Middle Ages, as pagans converted to Christianity. According to altogetherchristmas.com, reindeer pulling Santa’s sleigh likely has its origins in Norse and Germanic mythology.
“In Norse and Germanic mythology, Thor is the God of Thunder and soars through the sky in a chariot pulled by two magical goats. Thor was highly revered and was arguably the most popular of Norse gods in ancient times,” the website states. “Images and stories of Thor soaring the skies in his sleigh pulled by two large, horned goats may have influenced the creation of Santa’s sleigh and flying, antlered reindeer by those in the west familiar with Dutch or Germanic mythology.”
Everyone knows that reindeer don’t really fly, but do reindeer have red noses?
“Of course, the story was rooted in myth, but there’s actually more truth to it than most of us realize,” according to Smithsonian Magazine’s article “The Scientific Reason Why Reindeer Have Red Noses”. “A fraction of reindeer — the species of deer scientifically known as Rangifer tarandus, native to Arctic regions in Alaska, Canada, Greenland, Russia, and Scandinavia — actually do have noses colored with a distinctive red hue.”
The nose coloration, according to researchers from the Netherlands and Norway, is caused by “an extremely dense array of blood vessels, packed into the nose in order to supply blood and regulate body temperature in extreme environments.”
In 1821, reindeer were first associated in writing with the legend of Santa Claus in “A New Year’s Present, to the Little Ones from Five to Twelve Number III: The Children’s Friend”, a 16-page booklet by an anonymous author (published by New York printer William Gilley):
“Old Santeclaus with much delight
His reindeer drives this frosty night.
O’er chimneytops, and tracks of snow,
To bring his yearly gifts to you.”
Santa’s “eight tiny reindeer” were first identified by name in “A Visit From St. Nicholas” (commonly known as “The Night Before Christmas”) in 1823. In the Troy Sentinel’s publication of the poem that year, Santa’s seventh and eighth reindeer were originally called “Dunder and Blixem” (Dutch words meaning “thunder” and “lightning”). Later publications changed their names to read “Donder and Blitzen” (German for “thunder” and “lightning”), followed by yet another change in the 20th century to “Donner”.
“After Johnny Marks penned the song ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’ in 1949, based on the story by Robert L. May, the name ‘Donner’ became the most popular spelling for the seventh reindeer originally named ‘Dunder’ in the poem ‘A Visit From St. Nicholas’,” according to altogetherchristmas.com. “May’s story and Marks’ song were both well-received, and Rudolph is without a doubt the most famous addition to Santa’s team.”