The 12 Days of Christmas Music in 2015, Day 6: “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”

Here’s a little trivia you can whip out at your next holiday party:

Q: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was part of a marketing strategy for what product?

A: A Christmas coloring book from Montgomery Ward.

Q: What animal was Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer before he was a reindeer?

A: A moose. Maybe.

Q: What part of Rudolph did the boss complain about?

A: His red nose.

The draft of other names considered
The draft of other names considered

Q: What other names were considered for the character besides Rudolph?

A: Several including Rodney, Roddy, Roderick, Rudy, Rollo, Roland, Reggy, Reginald, and Romeo. BBC launched a series about Rudolph’s son, Robbie, and another Christmas special gives Rudolph a brother named Rusty.

Q: What other Christmas poem besides “Rudolph” is in anapestic tetrameter?

A: Why in the sam hill should I know about anapestic tetrameter? Fair point. (The other poem is “A Visit from St. Nicholas” or “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.” “Rudolph” was clearly modeled after the famous earlier poem because “Rudolph” starts “‘Twas the day before Christmas, and all through the hills…” and ends with “Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!” just as Clement C. Moore’s does.)

Robert and Barbara May reading “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” together

Rudolph was originally both a goodwill gift and an attempt to save money on an in-house promotion. For years the retail giant Montgomery Ward had bought and given away coloring books at Christmas. For the 1939 season they figured that creating their own coloring book would be more cost-effective and a nice gesture, and so Robert L. May, a 35 year-old advertising copywriter, was commissioned to come up with a storybook to that end. Incidentally, May was Jewish, and so was his brother-in-law, Johnny Marks, who wrote the music. Thus “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” is another in the long line of Christmas songs that have come from Jewish songwriters, something I wrote about for Day 5 in 2013. One account says that May initially wrote of a moose but changed it,  because, purportedly, reindeer are “more friendly.” But another version says that May decided to make the character a deer because it was his four year-old daughter Barbara’s favorite animal at the zoo. Barbara was also, apparently, May’s first test audience for different revisions as he tried to make sure the story appealed to children.

The story of Rudolph was even more personal to May, however. Like the outcast reindeer in the story, May often felt out of place and seems to have struggled to find social acceptance while growing up. What’s more, after battling cancer for about two years, May’s wife Evelyn passed away leaving him as a single father with several medical bills and on a copywriter’s salary. His boss offered to take him off the project, but May refused and later said, “I needed Rudolph now more than ever.” And at first, May’s boss wasn’t too pleased with the concept for the children’s book. At the time red noses were associated with chronic drunkenness, and May’s boss asked, “Can’t you come up with anything better?” Eventually, however, May’s superiors were won over by the character, story, and drawings, and Rudolph and his bright nose found their way into millions of hearts: 2.4 million copies were distributed in 1939. If you’d like to see the original poem and illustrations, you can find them along with a terrific NPR spot on the whole story here.

The version posted here is from the 1964 animated special aired on NBC featuring Burl Ives. If you’ve been following the blog, this might sound familiar: yesterday I mentioned that in the following year, 1965, CBS aired A Charlie Brown Christmas. Both films and their soundtracks have remained Christmas staples, and I’m glad: for Christmas I like the story of social underdogs finding they have something needed and lovely to offer.

Rudolph_The_Red_Nosed_Reindeer

Day 6, 2014

Day 6, 2013

Day 6, 2012 

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