Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
The glowing history behind Christmas's most stop-motiony character.

Dan Van Oss Complete Columns, Events and Holidays 0 Comments

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is a fictional Christmas-time character that first appeared in 1939 as the ninth reindeer pulling Santa’s forced servitude toy-distribution sledge. Known for his glowing red nose and inability to successfully convince his co-workers to allow him to participate in common playtime activities for reindeer, he was the creation of a low-paid advertising copywriter for Montgomery Ward.

Rhonda, Carl, Ricky and Rudolph

Robert L. May was tasked with coming up with a cheery Christmas coloring book to lift the spirits of Depression-era shoppers using an animal as the star. After going through a round of rejected characters which we would like to think included Rhonda the Ruby-Lipped Rhinocerous and Carl the Crimson-Beaked Cockatiel, he decided to make a deer his central character, finally landing on “Ricky, the Deer with Extreme Nose Rosacea”, at which point he was fired for being such a terrible copywriter. Just kidding; of course the deer was Rudolph, and May’s creation was described in the poem he wrote for the book, which was first published during the 1939 holiday season. Written as a poem in anapestic tetrameter, the same horrific rhyming disease that also afflicted Dr. Seuss, May told the story of a young reindeer named Rudolph, whose father may or may not have been the guy in the Operation game. His unfortunate genetic disorder is ridiculed by his co-workers, causing great distress to the young deer, who is then convinced by lawyers from the Animal Defense Fund to file an employment discrimination lawsuit that ultimately wins him $14 million which bankrupts Santa and then Christmas is canceled (See: “The Year Without A Santa Claus“).

A killer-diller lulu of a magilla

The poem was a hit with shoppers, who snapped up over 2.4 million copies using their 24 million greedy holiday snapping fingers, but even so the poem wouldn’t be reprinted until 1946 because of wartime restrictions on paper use (thanks again, Hitler.) May was generously given the rights to the Rudolph story and proceeded to release a spoken word version of the poem, followed by a print book, with both items making killer-diller moola like a lulu, if you really want the whole magilla, which in 1940s-speak means they sold well. Next, his brother-in-law Johnny Marks, who was a songwriter, decided to write a song based on the now-famous deer in 1949. It became an instant hit; or at least it did after it was recorded by country-western star Gene Autry and made into actual records and played on whatever people used for MP3 players back then. It sold more copies than any other Christmas song with the exception of White Christmas and the one those chipmunks sing about the hula hoop.

Get to the sled!

A sequel, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer Shines Again, starred Arnold Schwarzenegger as an older and now bitter, disillusioned Rudolph who exacts bloody revenge on a Mexican drug cartel for killing his family over a magic candy cane or something. But again, that’s just what we’d like to think. The character probably achieved it’s ultimate fame as a result of the eponymous Rankin and Bass stop-motion TV special which aired in 1964 in what is now regarded as a Christmas Classic, right up there with the Santa Norelco shaver commercial and that one weird special where David Bowie sings “Little Drummer Boy” with Bing Crosby in a cardigan sweater. The special added such characters as Sam the folk-singing hipster snowman, Hermey the slightly masochistic unlicensed dentist, and Yukon Cornelius, winner of the most gravity-defying mustache in history. Subsequent annual viewings have cemented Rudolph and his pals into the public consciousness like an impacted Abominable Snow Monster molar, although certain children, not necessarily me, suffered deep psychological trauma when they weren’t allowed to watch the show until they had finished eating their nasty pig-in-a-blankets, because Tivo hadn’t been invented yet, and he had mean parents.

So while you may have your Dasher’s, Donner’s, Vixen’s, Nixon’s and Agnew’s, remember good old Rudolph and his glowing proboscis is at the front of the pack making sure that you get your Rock ’em Sock ’em Robots you never got when you were a kid, as long as you eat your pig-in-a-blankets.

Photo Credit: olivia_henry cc
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