A bit of Christmas history

George Engel

George Engel - Christmas History Few and far between are the denizens of the industrialized world who can escape the secular trappings of the Christmas season, perhaps best exemplified by Santa Claus and his loyal team of nine enchanted (or, at least, telekinetic) reindeer: Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner, Blitzen, and Rudolph -- the latter also sporting the superpower of a hyper-illuminated red nose.

Visit from Saint Nicholas Eight of Santa's flight-capable caribou can trace their origins to a poem: "Visit from Saint Nicholas." Better known by its revised title, "The Night Before Christmas,"* the earliest version of this poem first appeared on Dec. 23, 1823 in New York's Troy Sentinel newspaper.

Contemporary readers of the original poem will recognize six of the eight names: Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, and Cupid. The final two members of Santa's flying sleigh team began their lyrical lives named not Donner and Blitzen, but Dunder and Blixem, the Dutch words for thunder and lightning, respectively.

As an aside, even though "Visit from Saint Nicholas"* was originally anonymous, two strong cases for the potential author have subsequently cropped up: Henry Livingston and Clement Clarke Moore. Furthermore, the use of Dutch terminology figures significantly into the respective arguments.

Given New York's rich Dutch immigration history (New Amsterdam, anyone?), the use of Dutch words in the original poem isn't too surprising. However, because "Visit from Saint Nicholas" originally ran as an anonymous submission to the Sentinel, editors widely reprinted it -- and thus modified it -- in various publications almost since the moment it first appeared.

Chief among these modifications was the evolution of Dunder and Blixem to Donder and Blitzen, the German word for lightning. Further down the line, Donder became Donner, the German word for thunder, and thus we have the current nominal lineup of Santa's reindeer.

Robert L. MayExcept, of course, for Rudolph, who didn't appear until copywriter Robert L. May* dreamt him up in 1939 -- and Santa's red-nosed team leader almost received a different name.

What names did copywriter Robert L. May consider for a famous red-nosed reindeer before settling on the now-beloved Rudolph?

May created Rudolph as part of a Christmas marketing campaign for Montgomery Ward department stores. He wanted an alliterative name, and he pondered both Rollo and Reginald as possible names for his commissioned character.

Illustrator Denver Gillen Besides the name nearly being different, Rudolph almost came to life missing his trademark red nose. May's superiors feared that this attribute would draw unwanted comparisons to drunkenness, as society once considered a flushed red nose a physical symptom of alcoholic inebriation.

Illustrator Denver Gillen* was the one to save Rudolph's red nose. At May's request, he composed sketches of red-nosed reindeer based on his observations of real caribou at the Lincoln Park Zoo.

Gillen's renditions were sufficiently charming to assuage May's bosses, and Montgomery Ward subsequently approved a Rudolph giveaway booklet in time for the 1939 holiday shopping rush. More than two million copies later, the new pop-culture icon was well on his way to changing the holidays forever.

Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer Yet, if Rudolph's and Robert May's story ended there, it's unlikely any modern consumers would have heard of either individual. An already charming tale took a turn toward utterly heartwarming in 1947, when May persuaded Montgomery Ward president Sewell Avery to turn the Rudolph copyright over to the reindeer's creator.

Because May created Rudolph as a Montgomery Ward employee, the company owned all the Rudolph rights. May, whose wife's terminal illness had taken both an emotional and financial toll, asked for the Rudolph copyright to get back on his feet, and Avery agreed.

May made the most of Avery's kindness, parlaying the Rudolph copyright into the hit song by Gene Autry* in 1949 and the classic Burl Ives-narrated television special* in 1964. Despite a healthy income from the Rudolph license, May spent most of his professional career as a loyal Montgomery Ward employee, retiring as such in 1971.

When Robert L. May passed away in 1976, he left behind not just one of the most beloved characters in modern Christmas lore, but also an uplifting legacy for everyone -- especially Trivia Geeks -- to enjoy.

Until next time ... Happy Holidays!

George Engel The Naked Serviceman

George Engel

Now, enjoy the rest of the story ...
Listen to Gene Autry's "Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer"
The story: A Visit from Saint Nicholas
Amazon: A Visit from Saint Nicholas
'twas the Night Before Christmas
About "The Night Before Christmas"
The Book : The Night Before Christmas
Lots of versions of The Night Before Christmas
Who was Clement Clarke Moore?
Who was Robert L. May?
More about Denver Gillen
More about Gene Autry
About Burl Ives
About the Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer TV Classic
Audio CD : Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
DVD Movie : Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964)

About the author: George Engel has been a computer guru probably longer than he will admit -- as a computer expert, he authored The Naked Serviceman book, about his journey through the history of Apple's Macintosh as owner/founder of an authorized Apple Service Center. He owned one of the first Apple II computers as well as one of the first Macintosh 128s. He hangs out with the Lakeland User Group in sunny Florida.


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