In 1939, the Montgomery Ward department store, known for its annual holiday coloring book giveaway, sought to cut costs by creating its own book. This decision led to the birth of one of the most beloved Christmas characters:
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
Robert L. May, a copywriter with a knack for children's stories and limericks, was tasked with crafting a Christmas tale. Drawing on his own childhood experiences, May developed the story of an underdog reindeer with a glowing red nose, which he refined with the help of his daughter Barbara’s feedback. Initially, May’s red-nosed creation was met with skepticism due to concerns that the red nose might imply inebriation. However, after illustrations by Denver Gillen brought the story to life, the tale received the green light from Montgomery Ward’s management.
Rudolph’s story quickly gained popularity, with Montgomery Ward distributing millions of copies, even more so after WWII. The character’s fame soared with Johnny Marks’ musical adaptation, with Gene Autry’s 1949 recording becoming a monumental hit. Although Robert L. May had not initially benefited financially from his creation due to company copyright, Montgomery Ward, in a remarkable gesture, granted him the rights in 1947. This allowed May to settle his debts and eventually retire comfortably.
Johnny Marks’ musical rendition of Rudolph not only became a staple of Christmas music but also laid the foundation for the narrative known today, significantly influencing subsequent adaptations, including the enduring TV special first aired in 1964.
The initial story differed notably from the familiar version: Rudolph was not part of Santa’s team at the North Pole and only met Santa when the fog-bound St. Nick visited his home, leading to the famous sleigh-leading event. Despite his Jewish heritage, Johnny Marks had a knack for Christmas songs, composing classics such as “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” and “A Holly Jolly Christmas,” which remain seasonal favorites.
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer Song
In the midst of the twentieth century, a character leapt from the page to the airwaves, forever changing the soundscape of Christmas. The story of Rudolph, a creation of Robert May for Montgomery Ward, found its melody through Johnny Marks, a World War II veteran and talented composer. Marks, entwining with family ties to May, crafted a tune that Gene Autry initially set aside. It was only through the intuition of Autry’s wife that the song saw the light of day, eventually soaring to become an immortal anthem of the festive season, trailing only behind ‘White Christmas’ in its legendary status.
From Storybook to Screen Icon
The enchanting tale of a misfit reindeer found new life in the glowing screen of the ’60s television. Transcending its origins from Montgomery Ward’s promotional booklet, Rudolph became the star of a Rankin/Bass-produced stop-motion film, crafted by Canadian talents and voiced by an ensemble led by Burl Ives. The film, narrated in the snowy peaks of Toronto’s RCA Studio, not only showcased the universal theme of embracing one’s uniqueness but also solidified Rudolph’s place as a yuletide fixture. This special, becoming a beacon of Christmas spirit, continues to be a seasonal staple, celebrated as the longest-running Christmas TV special in history.
Rudolph’s Northward Journey
While the story of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer has its roots firmly planted in American soil, thanks to Robert May and Montgomery Ward, its branches stretched into Canada with a unique twist. The narrative’s visual companion, Denver Gillen, a Canadian artist and HBC employee, infused the tale with illustrations that would become synonymous with the festive season. Gillen’s contribution underlined a cross-border cultural exchange, culminating in the exclusive rights held by The Robert Simpson Company. Through a licensing agreement with May, HBC not only marketed a myriad of Rudolph-inspired products but also became a pivotal player in the narrative’s northward expansion and enduring legacy within Canadian Christmas culture.
From May’s contemplation of different names for Rudolph to the Finnish tradition of earthbound reindeer, the history of Rudolph is peppered with intriguing facts, including the unique retirement of the voice actors from the classic CBS version.
The tale of Rudolph highlight the potent influence a single character can have on the larger narrative of Christmas. In response, the market has seen an uptick in unique holiday characters that capture the public’s heart. One can find an assortment of advent calendars that tell a story through their whimsical designs, each door or drawer unveiling a character or token that builds anticipation towards the festive day, reminiscent of Rudolph’s endearing journey.
Rudolph-themed Christmas ornaments have become collectible items, with each ornament telling a piece of the story and adding to the warmth of holiday decor. These ornaments serve not just as decorations but as vessels of holiday lore, with each piece often invoking a sense of nostalgia and creating new memories. Collectible ornaments make for a treasured part of Christmas celebrations, echoing the sentimentality of Rudolph’s own legacy.
Beyond Rudolph, the season is ripe for exploring other holiday tales. Children’s Christmas storybooks make for a magical addition to any family’s holiday tradition. Like the original story of Rudolph, new narratives are waiting to be told and cherished, each book offering a new world of imagination and festive delight to be enjoyed by listeners and readers of all ages.
Holiday music is a fundamental part of the season’s joy, with classic songs like Rudolph’s own standing beside a plethora of new and traditional carols. Music lovers can delve into collections of Christmas songs that continue to be the soundtrack for the season. These carols, whether old favorites or new hits, fill homes with the spirit of the holidays and often become as much a tradition as the Christmas stories themselves.
The enduring popularity of Christmas stories is amplified through their adaptation into films, with Rudolph’s 1964 movie being a prime example. The availability of these holiday specials on various streaming platforms has ensured that these films remain a part of contemporary Christmas traditions. They offer families an opportunity to come together and share in the timeless joy that these stories bring, much like the annual viewing of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” has for countless households.
Rudolph’s story, immortalized by Johnny Marks’ song and the beloved TV special, has not only transcended generations but has also fostered a myriad of holiday customs. Whether through collectible ornaments, cherished storybooks, the melodies of carols, or the annual family movie night, Rudolph’s influence is a testament to the enduring nature of holiday lore. His legacy, nurtured through corporate generosity and creative collaborations, continues to resonate with the Christmas spirit, reminding us that the greatest joys often come from the most unexpected places.
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