A Month of Christmas: Rudolph & Santa’s Other Reindeer

United States - Scott #4946 (2014)
United States – Scott #4946 (2014)

In traditional festive legend, reindeer pull a sleigh through the night sky to help Santa Claus deliver gifts to children on Christmas Eve. The commonly cited names of the eight reindeer are Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner and Blitzen, based on those used in the 1823 poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (commonly called “The Night Before Christmas”) by Clement Clarke Moore. The enduring popularity of the Christmas song “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” — a number 1 hit for Gene Autry during the week of Christmas 1949, in turn based on a 1939 story published by Montgomery Ward — has led to Rudolph often joining the list, bringing the number of Santa Claus’s reindeer up to nine. Rudolph is also well-known from the NBC-TV special which first aired on December 6, 1964, and telecast every year since, making it the longest continuously running Christmas TV special in history.

The first reference to Santa’s sleigh being pulled by a reindeer appears in “Old Santeclaus with Much Delight,” an illustrated children’s poem published in New York in 1821. The names of the author and the illustrator are not known. The poem, with eight colored lithographic illustrations, was published in New York by William B. Gilley as a small paperback book entitled The Children’s Friend: A New-Year’s Present, to the Little Ones from Five to Twelve. It is the first publication to mention (and illustrate) Santa’s reindeer and sleigh, as well as being the first to describe his arrival on Christmas Eve. The accompanying illustrations are the earliest published artistic depictions of a Santa Claus figure. The book is believed to have been the first produced by lithography in the United States.

Illustration to verse 1 of the children’s poem Old Santeclaus with Much Delight, published in The Children’s friend. Number III. A New-Year’s present, to the little ones from five to twelve. Part III (1821), page 1.

Gilley’s book includes some important elements in the early development of Santa Claus including his connection with the northern winter, the reindeer and sleigh, and his arrival on Christmas Eve rather than on December 6 which is the traditional feast day of Saint Nicholas. The accompanying lithographs show Santeclaus dressed in a red outfit and are the first reference to his being dressed in that color. Although red had been traditionally associated with bishop’s robes, such as those that Saint Nicholas might have worn, the outfit shown is not that of a bishop, nor does it represent the old Dutch clothing of Saint Nicholas as described by Washington Irving and James Kirke Paulding.

In contrast with the modern Santa Claus, Santeclaus leaves presents as rewards only for ‘good’ children. ‘Naughty’ children receive a ‘long, black, birchen rod’ whose use for parental punishment is endorsed as a ‘command of God’:

Old SANTECLAUS with much delight
His reindeer drives this frosty night,
O’r chimney tops, and tracts of snow,
To bring his yearly gifts to you.

The steady friend of virtuous youth,
The friend of duty, and of truth,
Each Christmas eve he joys to come
Where peace and love have made their home.

Through many houses he has been,
And various beds and stockings seen;
Some, white as snow, and neatly mended,
Others, that seemed for pigs intended.

Illustration to verse 2 of the children’s poem Old Santeclaus with Much Delight, published in The Children’s friend. Number III. A New-Year’s present, to the little ones from five to twelve. Part III (1821), page 2.

To some I gave a pretty doll,
To some a peg-top, or a ball;
No crackers, cannons, squibs, or rockets,
To blow their eyes up, or their pockets.

Where e’re I found good girls or boys,
That hated quarrels, strife and noise,
I left an apple, or a tart,
Or wooden gun, or painted cart;

No drums to stun their Mother’s ear,
Nor swords to make their sisters fear;
But pretty books to store their mind
With knowledge of each various kind.

But where I found the children naughty,
In manners crude, in temper haughty,
Thankless to parents, liars, swearers,
Boxers, or cheats, or base tale-bearers,

I left a long, black, birchen rod,
Such as the dread command of GOD
Directs a Parent’s hand to use
When virtue’s path his sons refuse.

“A Visit From St. Nicholas”, handwritten manuscript by Clement C. Moore.

The 1823 poem by Clement C. Moore “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (also known as “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas”) is largely credited for the contemporary Christmas lore that includes eight named reindeer. The poem has been called “arguably the best-known verses ever written by an American”[1] and is largely responsible for some of the conceptions of Santa Claus from the mid-nineteenth century to today. It has had a massive impact on the history of Christmas gift-giving. Before the poem gained wide popularity, American ideas had varied considerably about Saint Nicholas and other Christmastide visitors. “A Visit from St. Nicholas” eventually was set to music and has been recorded by many artists.

The relevant segment of the poem reads:

When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
but a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny rein-deer,
with a little old driver, so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment it must be St. Nick.

More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and call’d them by name:
“Now, Dasher! Now, Dancer! Now, Prancer, and Vixen!
“On, Comet! On, Cupid! On, Dunder and Blixem!

“To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!
“Now dash away! dash away! dash away all!”

As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky;

So up to the house-top the coursers they flew,

According to legend, “A Visit” was composed by Clement Clarke Moore on a snowy winter’s day during a shopping trip on a sleigh. His inspiration for the character of Saint Nicholas was a local Dutch handyman as well as the historical Saint Nicholas. Moore originated many of the features that are still associated with Santa Claus today while borrowing other aspects, such as the use of reindeer. The poem was first published anonymously in the Troy, New York Sentinel on December 23, 1823, having been sent there by a friend of Moore, and was reprinted frequently thereafter with no name attached. It was first attributed in print to Moore in 1837. Moore himself acknowledged authorship when he included it in his own book of poems in 1844. By then, the original publisher and at least seven others had already acknowledged his authorship. Moore had a reputation as an erudite professor and had not wished at first to be connected with the unscholarly verse. He included it in the anthology at the insistence of his children, for whom he had originally written the piece.

Illustration showing reindeer accompanying Clement Moor;e’s “A Visit From St. Nicholas’ as published in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, December 1857.

Moore’s conception of Saint Nicholas was borrowed from his friend Washington Irving, but Moore portrayed his “jolly old elf” as arriving on Christmas Eve rather than Christmas Day. At the time that Moore wrote the poem, Christmas Day was overtaking New Year’s Day as the preferred genteel family holiday of the season, but some Protestants viewed Christmas as the result of “Catholic ignorance and deception”[1] and still had reservations. By having Saint Nicholas arrive the night before, Moore “deftly shifted the focus away from Christmas Day with its still-problematic religious associations.” As a result, “New Yorkers embraced Moore’s child-centered version of Christmas as if they had been doing it all their lives.”

In An American Anthology, 1787–1900, editor Edmund Clarence Stedman reprinted the Moore version of the poem, including the German spelling of “Donder and Blitzen” that he adopted, rather than the earlier Dutch version from 1823 “Dunder and Blixem.” Both phrases translate as “Thunder and Lightning” in English, though the German word for thunder is Donner and the words in modern Dutch would be “Donder en Bliksem.”

Modern printings frequently incorporate alterations that reflect changing linguistic and cultural sensibilities. For example, breast in “The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow” is frequently bowdlerized to crest; the archaic ere in “But I heard him exclaim ere he drove out of sight” is frequently replaced with as. This change implies that Santa Claus made his exclamation during the moment that he disappeared from view, while the exclamation came before his disappearance in the original. “Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night” is frequently rendered with the traditional English locution “Merry Christmas”.

Cover of the 1939 Montgomery Ward edition of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer by Robert L. May. The full book can be viewed online here.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, popularly known as “Santa’s ninth reindeer”, is a fabled reindeer created by Robert Lewis May. Rudolph is usually depicted as the lead reindeer pulling Santa’s sleigh on Christmas Eve, though he is a young buck who has only adolescent antlers and a glowing red nose. Though he receives scrutiny for it, the luminosity of his nose is so great that it illuminates the team’s path through harsh winter weather. Rudolph first appeared in a 1939 booklet written by May and published by Montgomery Ward, the department store.

The story of Rudolph is owned by The Rudolph Company, LP and has been adapted in numerous forms including a popular song, the iconic 1964 television special and sequels, and a feature film and sequel. Character Arts, LLC manages the licensing for the Rudolph Company, LP. In many countries, Rudolph has become a figure of Christmas folklore. 2014 marked the 75th anniversary of the character and the 50th anniversary of the television special.

Robert L. May created Rudolph in 1939 as an assignment for Chicago-based Montgomery Ward. The retailer had been buying and giving away coloring books for Christmas every year and it was decided that creating their own book would save money. Robert May considered naming the reindeer “Rollo” or “Reginald” before deciding upon using the name “Rudolph”. In its first year of publication, Montgomery Ward distributed 2.4 million copies of Rudolph’s story. The story is written as a poem in anapestic tetrameter, the same meter as “A Visit from St. Nicholas”.

While May was pondering how best to craft a Christmas story about a reindeer, while staring out his office window in downtown Chicago, a thick fog from Lake Michigan blocked his view — giving him a flash of inspiration. “Suddenly I had it!” he recalled. “A nose! A bright red nose that would shine through fog like a spotlight.” The cultural significance of a red nose has changed since the story’s publication. In 1930’s popular culture, a bright red nose was closely associated with chronic alcoholism and drunkards, so the story idea was initially rejected. May asked his illustrator friend at Montgomery Ward, Denver Gillen, to draw “cute reindeer”, using zoo deer as models. The alert, bouncy character Gillen developed convinced management to support the idea.

Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer by Robert L. May – pop-up version published by Adprint Books, London, in 1950. Images from the inside of this book can be found here.

Maxton Books published the first mass-market edition of Rudolph in 1947 and a sequel, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer Shines Again, in 1954. In 1992, Applewood Books published Rudolph’s Second Christmas, an unpublished sequel that Robert May wrote in 1947. In 2003, Penguin Books issued a reprint version of the original Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer with new artwork by Lisa Papp. Penguin also reprinted May’s sequels, Rudolph Shines Again and Rudolph’s Second Christmas (now retitled Rudolph to the Rescue).

The story chronicles the experiences of Rudolph, a youthful reindeer buck (male) who possesses an unusual luminous red nose. Mocked and excluded by his peers because of this trait, Rudolph proves himself one Christmas Eve with poor visibility due to inclement weather after Santa Claus catches sight of Rudolph’s nose and asks Rudolph to lead his sleigh for the evening. Rudolph agrees and is finally favored by his fellow reindeer for his heroism and accomplishment.

Rudolph made his first screen appearance in 1948, in a cartoon short produced by Max Fleischer for the Jam Handy Corporation that was faithful to May’s original stor. It was reissued in 1951 with Johnny Marks’ song added. May’s brother-in-law, Marks, adapted the story of Rudolph into a song with an added introduction, paraphrasing the poem “A Visit from Saint Nicholas” (public domain by the time the song was written), stating the names of the eight reindeer which went:

You know Dasher and Dancer and Prancer and Vixen,
Comet and Cupid and Donner and Blitzen,
But do you recall
The most famous reindeer of all?

The song was first sung by crooner Harry Brannon on New York City radio in early November 1949, before Gene Autry’s recording (made on June 27, 1949, and released on September 1) hit No. 1 in the U.S. charts during Christmas 1949. The song was suggested as a “B” side for a record Autry was making. Autry rejected the song. His wife convinced him to use it. The success of this Christmas song by Autry gave support to Autry’s subsequent popular Easter song, “Here Comes Peter Cottontail.” Autry’s version of the song also holds the distinction of being the only chart-topping hit to fall completely off the chart after reaching No. 1. The official date of its No. 1 status was for the week ending January 7, 1950, making it the first No. 1 song of the 1950s.

Front cover for the 10″ single “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” by the artist Gene Autry and The Pinafores., picture sleeve on Columbia Records (#MJV-56), 1949.

The song was also performed on the December 6, 1949, Fibber McGee and Molly radio broadcast by Teeny (Marion Jordan’s little girl character) and The Kingsmen vocal group. The lyrics varied greatly from the Autry version. Autry’s recording sold 1.75 million copies its first Christmas season, eventually selling a total of 12.5 million. Cover versions included, sales exceed 150 million copies, second only to Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas”. It remained the second best-selling record of all time until the 1980s.

DC Comics, then known as National Periodical Publications, published a series of 13 annuals titled Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer from 1950 to 1962. Rube Grossman drew most of the 1950s stories. In 1972, DC Comics published a 14th edition in an extra-large format. Subsequently, they published six more in that format: Limited Collectors’ Edition C-24, C-33, C-42, C-50 and All-New Collectors’ Edition C-53, C-60. Additionally, one digest format edition was published as The Best of DC #4 (March–April 1980).[20] The 1970s Rudolph stories were written and drawn by Sheldon Mayer.

In 1958, Little Golden Books published an illustrated storybook, adapted by Barbara Shook Hazen and illustrated by Richard Scarry. The book, similar in story to the Max Fleischer cartoon short, is no longer in print, but a revised Little Golden Books version of the storybook was reissued in 1972.

Hermey the elf and Rudolph, two characters from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. A still from the 1964 NBC-TV special.

Perhaps the most well-known version of all the Rudolph adaptations is the Rankin/Bass version of 1964. Filmed in Tokyo, Japan, with all sound recordings done in Toronto, Canada, the show first aired on Sunday, December 6, 1964, on the NBC television network in the United States. It was sponsored by General Electric under the umbrella title of The General Electric Fantasy Hour. As the producers of the special only had the song as source material and did not have a copy of the original book, they interpolated an original story around the central narrative of the song, one that differed from the book. This re-telling chronicles Rudolph’s social rejection among his peers and his decision to run away from home. Rudolph is accompanied by a similarly outcast elf named Hermey, who skipped elf practice to become a dentist, along with a loud, boisterous, eager prospector named Yukon Cornelius who was in search of wealth. Additional original characters include Rudolph’s love interest, Clarice; the antagonistic “Abominable Snow Monster”; and, as narrator, Sam the living Snowman, voiced by Burl Ives.

In the 1964 stop-motion special, Rudolph is born to Donner the Reindeer and Donner’s wife. He is discovered by Santa to have a shiny, glowing red nose. Donner, regardless of Rudolph’s defect, trains him to be a normal reindeer with skills such as gathering food and hiding from the “Abominable Snow Monster”, a giant, furry white beast. To hide Rudolph’s nose, Donner puts dirt on it to cover it with a black coating. This causes Rudolph to talk in a funny accent, as told by the Rudolph’s peers. A short time later, Rudolph joins his peers at the Reindeer Games, where he meets Fireball, who is initially friendly and has a shock of strawberry blond hair on his head, and Clarice, a female spectator who takes a liking to Rudolph. Clarice’s flirtation inspires Rudolph to perform better than all of his peers at flying, but in his excitement he knocks the black cover off his nose, revealing a red glow that causes Fireball and the others to turn against him; this distraction, in turn, prompts the coach (Comet) to ban Rudolph from the Reindeer Games. Clarice remains loyal to him, only to be ordered by her father not to shame the family by associating with “a red-nosed reindeer.”

Rudolph soon runs into Hermey, an elf who was forced out of his job at the North Pole’s toy factory; Hermey showed a total lack of interest in the toymaking and singing aspects of being an elf and instead wanted to pursue dentistry. They come to the conclusion that they’re both misfits and decide to run away together. On their aimless journey, they run into Yukon Cornelius, the self-described “greatest prospector of the North” who nevertheless seems to never find any silver or gold, and attempt to stay away from the Bumble, a huge abominable snow monster. Their journey leads them to the Island of Misfit Toys, where sentient but unorthodox toys go when they are abandoned by their owners. King Moonracer, the winged lion that lords over the Island, refuses to let them stay there permanently, instead telling the trio to return home and tell Santa Claus of the toys’ plight, in exchange for one night’s stay on the island. Rudolph refuses the offer and, fearing for his friends’ life, runs off alone.

Advertisement for the original NBC airing of Videocraft’s Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, promoted as a General Electric Fantasy Hour.

A now older Rudolph, still unable to find a place in the world, returns home to the North Pole, only to find that his family and Clarice had left to look for him and are now about to be eaten by the Bumble. With the help of Hermey and Yukon (who arrived separately), they lure the Bumble away and pacify him by knocking him unconscious and allowing Hermey (with dental skills he has acquired by reading books) to remove his sharp teeth. Everyone eventually returns to Santa’s workshop, where a dismayed Santa Claus breaks the bad news that the weather is too bad to take the sleigh out and that Christmas would be canceled. Santa changes his mind when he notices Rudolph’s red nose and asks Rudolph to lead the sleigh team, which he happily accepts.

After the story’s initial broadcast, its closing credits were revised. Images of wrapped presents being dropped from Santa’s sleigh were replaced by a scene in which Santa stops to pick up the Misfit Toys and delivers them to the homes of children below, where they were found by children who loved them. The changes were prompted by viewer feedback pleading for a happy ending for each toy. Since 1972, the special has aired on CBS, with the network unveiling a high-definition, digitally remastered version of the program in 2005. As with A Charlie Brown Christmas and How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Rudolph no longer airs just once annually, but several times during the Christmas and holiday season on CBS. Unlike other holiday specials that also air on several cable channels (including Freeform), Rudolph airs only on CBS. It has been telecast every year since 1964, making it the longest continuously running Christmas TV special. It is hailed as a classic by many while the special’s original assortment of characters have acquired iconic status. An uncertainty surrounding an error in the special’s copyright has allowed the special to be widely parodied and imitated in the decades since its original airing.

The success of the special led to two sequels — Rudolph’s Shiny New Year (premier air date December 10, 1976) — which continued the reindeer’s journeys. The series was made into a trilogy with the 1979 feature-length film Christmas in July, which integrated the Rudolph universe into that of Rankin/Bass’s adaptation of Frosty the Snowman.

Theatrical release poster for Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: The Movie, 1998

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: The Movie (1998) is an animated feature film. It received only a limited theatrical release before debuting on home video. Its inclusion of a villain, a love interest, a sidekick, and a strong protector are more derivative of the Rankin/Bass adaptation of the story than the original tale and song (the characters of Stormella, Zoey, Arrow, Slyly, and Leonard parallel the Rankin/Bass characters of the Bumble, Clarice, Fireball, Hermey, and Yukon, respectively). The movie amplifies the early backstory of Rudolph’s harassment by his schoolmates (primarily his cousin Arrow) during his formative years.

GoodTimes Entertainment, the producers of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: The Movie, brought back most of the same production team for a CGI animated sequel, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and the Island of Misfit Toys (2001). Unlike the previous film, the sequel featured the original characters from the Rankin/Bass special (as GoodTimes soon learned that Rankin/Bass had made a copyright error that made the characters unique to their special free to use).

United States – Scott #4946a (2014) block of four

A series of postage stamps featuring Rudolph was issued by the United States Postal Service on November 6, 2014, to mark the 50th anniversary of the NBC TV special (Scott #4946-4949). The art for the stamps comes from still frames from the special with the Forever denomination at the time of release of 49¢ to satisfy the first-class mail rate. They were printed by CCL Label, Inc., using the photogravure process in sheets of 120, with six booklet panes of 20 per sheet, self-adhesive with sserpentine die cut perforations measuring 11 x 10¾. There were a total of 500,000,000 copies of the Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer stamps issued. Additionally, an unknown number of uncut press sheets were sold to the public imperforate. The stamps portray Rudolph (Scott #4946), Hermey and Rudolph (Scott #4947), Santa (Scott #4948), and Bumble (Scott #4949).

Flag of the United States, 1959-date

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