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Before Rudolph, there were only eight reindeer: Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner, and Blitzen. This was the list provided in 1823 by American poet Clement C. Moore, most famously known for his work “’Twas the Night Before Christmas.” (Actually, the real name of that poem by Moore was “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” but it’s so popularly known by its first line that the true title has become trivial.) Moore’s poem is heavily responsible for how countless existing Christmas tradition concepts funneled into the singular Santa-and-reindeer imagery we assume today (St. Nick smoking a pipe, a belly like “jelly,” landing on rooftops, and several others). However, the most dominant contribution to Christmas tradition by Moore has been the appearance of eight reindeer wherever Santa goes to deliver presents.

Fast forward to 1939…

The Beginning of the Red Nose

This was the year that the most ingenious marketing campaign in history was visualized by the creative marketing board at Montgomery Ward—a famous mail-order and department store retail enterprise that dominated the Christmas season for several decades. Beginning in the early ’30s, Montgomery Ward decided to give away free promotional children’s books to customers every holiday season. This likely wouldn’t be a big deal now, but at the time, children’s books were a household luxury: Unlike today’s smartphone- or tablet-raised, digital-DNA generation youth, a colorful book was a beautiful present that would earn a place of honor in a child’s bedroom amidst that era’s comparatively technologically-deficit toys. Needless to say, the scheme took off splendidly, but because the books had to be outsourced from external publishers and printers, access to books that were both new titles as well as inexpensive enough to give away for free was limited. (The full-color and/or children’s hardback/board-cover formatting typical of children’s books is never cheap.) So, it was decided: They would write their own children’s book, a work of art and poetry available exclusively through Montgomery Ward, with a story surrounding a heroic Christmas character that would capture the hearts of seasonal shoppers. Doing so would not only drive consumers into the department store for that specific deal, but it would also cost Montgomery Ward far less to source the book on their own and have the gem shipped straight from the printers to their own stockrooms, cutting out book-industry middlemen costs.

Robert L. May, a low-income advertising executive of the store, was approached by his supervisor to write the story. It needed to be uplifting, it had to appeal to a wide audience, and the central plot had to revolve around an animal of some kind. May’s daughter, Barbara, had expressed a love for the deer she saw at the zoo, and there’s no doubt May drew further inspiration from Moore’s poem as he conceptualized a ninth reindeer being added to the previous celebrated eight. From the first line, even the rhythm of May’s work follows the foundation that Moore laid over a hundred years prior: “’Twas the day before Christmas, and all through the hills, The reindeer were playing, enjoying their spills.…”[i]

It was early 1939, and May would be given until late summer to have the book ready for the printers. In July, his wife Evelyn passed away from cancer, and May was told that he could abandon the project, but he refused, presenting the finished work that August and giving his mourning family something to smile about. May wrote, in an article from 1975 called “Rudolph Created in a Time of Sadness,” “I needed Rudolph now more than ever. Gratefully, I buried myself in the writing. Finally, in late August [1939] it was done. I called Barbara and her grandparents into the living room and read it to them. In their eyes, I could see that the story accomplished what I hoped.”[ii] That following holiday season, an unbelievable 2.4 million copies of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer flew off department store shelves and nestled themselves under the trees of rosy-cheeked children all across the states.

The story was an immediate, high-demand classic. Overnight, the awkward reindeer was a star. Instead of becoming a tired story that declined in popularity, the buzz only grew in subsequent years. In 1946, the printers cranked out 3.6 million copies of the beloved colorful book that shoppers could only get at Montgomery Ward’s department store at Christmas.

In 1948, May’s brother-in-law, American songwriter Johnny Marks, caught the Rudolph bug and wrote a song to go along with the character. After scribbling out the final piece, the infamous Gene Autry, only one of many well-known singers of his day that were approached with the proposition to record the carol, reservedly came on board to record it for release the following Christmas of 1949. He was not personally a fan of Rudolph, but his wife convinced him to give the glowy-nosed deer a shot, so he reluctantly placed the song on side B of a record single devoted to an unrelated song he was promoting at the time, expecting Rudolph might gain a few bored listeners. To Autry’s surprise, the single was an enormous success, and nobody hardly paid any attention to side A as fans clamored to get their hands on a copy of the “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” single. These authors assume that by the time that recording eventually grew to sell 15 million copies,[iii] ol’ Gene was glad he took a chance.

The World of Rankin and Bass

Then, if there had been a chance that the poem, book, and song were going to fade from the spotlight, all that changed when The General Electric Fantasy Hour sponsored Rankin/Bass Productions (known at the time as Videocraft International, Ltd.) in the making of a stop-motion animated, made-for-television film in 1964.

The original Montgomery Ward poem/book by May involved a fairly simple plot:

  • Rudolph is rejected by his peers;
  • Santa is elsewhere trying to fly a sleigh through thick fog and brambles;
  • Santa lands at Rudolph’s house, sees his glowing nose while he sleeps and wakes him to assist in the flight;
  • Rudolph writes a note explaining how he has gone away in the middle of the night to help Santa, and when the note is found the next morning, the town gathers to await his return;
  • when they get back, Santa credits Rudolph for a successful Christmas and he’s made a hero.
Because the scriptwriter, Romeo Muller, couldn’t quickly attain a copy of Robert May’s poem (eBay didn’t exist at the time), he instead adapted the storyline off of the song, requiring some imaginative license since that plot was even simpler than May’s poem. What resulted was a complicated plot involving a new Island of Misfit Toys, a prospector named Yukon Cornelius on the hunt for silver and gold, the threatening Bumble the Abominable Snow Monster, an elf that doesn’t like to make toys (and instead wants to be a dentist), a romantic interest for Rudolph named Clarice, and a whole collection of other supporting characters.

Of all people, Burl Ives—at the time a country star (and now the voice of Christmas, himself, as a result of this project)—agreed to star as Sam the Snowman, the story’s narrator. His gentle timing and “grandfatherly” voiceover work was masterfully executed, lending an “all ages,” “warm fireplace” feel to a work that may have otherwise come across as another adolescent Christmas kid’s show.

(Originally, Sam the Snowman was supposed to have a Brooklyn accent and was said to be modeled after the character Nicely-Nicely Johnson from Guys and Dolls, one of the great “oucha-ma-goucha,” “bodda-bing, bodda-boom,” cigar-chomping type roles of that time. What good fortune that the character changed the way it did before the release!) Singing the title song was a given for Ives, but two others were added to his docket—“A Holly, Jolly Christmas” and “Silver and Gold” (which was originally intended to be sung by Yukon Cornelius before the fame of Ives claimed the song for the Sam character)—both of which contributed to the show’s instant and overwhelming reception: attention that would eventually render it “the longest-running, highest rated TV special in the history of television.”[i] As the book The Making of the Rankin/Bass Holiday Classic: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer documents:

On December 6th, 1964, as the clock struck 5:30 PM on the east coast, NBC Television beamed Rudolph out over the airwaves to tens of millions of households across the country. Back in New York, Arthur Rankin and Jules Bass could only wait and hope that their creation would appeal to America’s TV viewers. The underwriters at General Electric must likewise have had their fingers crossed. When the program ended at 6:30 PM Eastern Time, the interested parties waited expectantly for the Neilsen ratings to be reported.

When the ratings came in, Rankin/Bass found their show to be not just a success, but a smash hit. It had taken a 55 share for its time slot [a share is the percentage of television sets in use]. In the years to follow, Rudolph would routinely win its time slot and consistently pull a 40–50 share. In 1995, the annual Rudolph airing on CBS garnered a 65 share.[v]



The critics followed up with a blast of positive feedback in newspapers all over the country as well, reassuring the producers of the show that it was, as would continue to be reflected in the world of media for over half a century, a worthwhile endeavor to invest in America’s darling deer.

But that was then…

Things were simpler…then.

The Buck Stops Here

It’s funny to me (Donna Howell)…watching this movie as an adult. As a child, so many things skimmed right over my head and I was none the wiser about issues of political or social “correctness.” Man oh man, how television has changed! Now, the things I couldn’t see before are so blatant that I’m wondering how generations before me didn’t react more than they did. It certainly was, as they say, “a different era.”

Before anything else is discussed, let me assure you readers that I’m actually the biggest fan of the Rankin/Bass production just under my mother, who dons her red Rudolph sweater on October first every year and doesn’t take it off until the following spring. We’re so big on Montgomery Ward’s brainchild that it borders on obnoxious.

Yeah. We’re “those people.” And now you’ve been warned.

I apologize in advance if you’re one of those who has to steer your shopping cart around that enormous aisle blockade caused by the family that won’t stop marveling at the latest red-nosed ornament or stuffed plush. If you find that you’re getting increasingly annoyed because you can’t reach the wrapping paper, check and see if the perpetrators of the bottlenecking look oddly similar to the personalities on SkyWatch Television…

The Howell residence still champions Rankin and Bass’ film above all other Rudolph depictions, in part because it holds a magic that can’t be recreated or imitated, but also because it does not spend any time overanalyzing the mental and emotional health and wellness of its characters in comparison to today’s easily offended and overcomplicated concepts of psychological confidence and wellbeing: A young deer is born different, he gets made fun of for it, and then his uniqueness saves the day. Parents are inspired, kids are encouraged, and the whole world is entertained. End of story. Moral delivered. No deep, emotional scars must be brought to light through counseling for Rudolph to be okay in the end.

Obviously, I have no problem with this movie being exactly what it is in today’s world. I think sitting down to this film is the second-coolest traditional movie of the whole holiday season every year. (The first-coolest, inarguably, is the musical masterpiece Scrooge starring Albert Finney, and anyone that disagrees with that statement either hasn’t seen the film or is clearly taking crazy pills.) Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is awesome for being precisely what it is: a representative of an era marked by innocence and refreshing simplicity. Therefore, I share the following because it’s amusing to note the cultural shift since 1964, not because I find the movie offensive in any way. For those of us who grew up feeling like the Rudolphs of our own story—during an age when the public was demanding an all-new level of awareness regarding such social injustices as discrimination, favoritism, and prejudice (and our media doesn’t miss a chance to address that)—the Rankin/Bass production is more than just an eye-opening trip down memory lane. It leaves the more mature viewer puzzled when the characters around Rudolph are harsher to him than we remember, followed by a complete lack of apology from any offender, as well as the absence of any corrective measure taken against oppressors.

In the interest of a modern reflection that leads to a meaningful take-home for readers today, I am going to ironically do what I just said I’m glad nobody forced this original film to do, and proceed with a deeper, more emotional and psychological analysis of this program and its characters. Like Tom Horn said when he called me last year, once the story gets to the Island of Misfit Toys, the plot represents a timeless truth about people and God that isn’t limited to 1964 children’s entertainment, and the word is solid. So, stay with me while we take an otherwise perfectly executed classic and pick at it a bit through modern lenses. The end will justify the means, I assure you.

UP NEXT: This Little Light of Mine…I’m Gonna…

[i] May, Robert L. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: Plus “Rudolph Shines Again.” AudioGO. Kindle Edition, location 6.

[ii] May, Robert L. “Rudolph Created in a Time of Sadness,” as quoted by: Nate Bloom, “Shining a Light on the Largely Untold Story of the Origins of Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” December 20, 2011, InterFaithFamily, last accessed July 19, 2019,

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Goldschmidt, Rick. The Making of the Rankin/Bass Holiday Classic: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (Miser Bros Press, Kindle Edition), location 112.

[v] Ibid., locations 1247–1255.

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