Flashback Fridays: One little deer not allowed in their games . . .

You’re a misfit deer with a garishly illuminated nose that all the other reindeer make fun of.  You’re ostracized from all their games and left feeling very lonely indeed. But then there’s that night–that dark foggy night when you’re needed for the number one job on the number one day . . .

Do you remember:

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer by Robert May, illustrated by Denver Gillen (Applewood Books, c1939)

You probably know of Rudolph.  Nowadays, he’s associated with the Christmas scene and mythology regularly.  When mentioning Santa Claus, elves and flying sleighs, thoughts of this ninth reindeer are bound to come up.  But Rudolph hasn’t been in the legends of Christmas all that long.  He’s only about seventy-five years old.  And he was created for a company as part of a Christmas promotion.

The iconic image of Santa Claus, and the names of the eight reindeer pulling his sleigh were immortalized back in 1823 in the poem “Twas the Night Before Christmas” (aka, “A Visit from St. Nicholas“) written by Clement Clarke Moore.  But Rudolph didn’t come along until the Montgomery Ward department store decided they wanted their own story to hand out to customers during the holiday season.  The company asked 34-year-old copywriter Robert May to come up with a booklet they could give away.  Yup, Rudolph was born as a promotional gimmick.

The original book is written in anapestic tetrameter–the same as “Twas the Night Before Christmas” though the rhymes are not always that good.  It doesn’t have the same smooth flow and lyricism of the original poem, but the sound of it echoes back to that classic, connecting the two in people’s minds.  According to wikipedia, Montgomery Ward distributed about 2.5 million copies of Rudolph’s story that first year. There are some stories circulating online that May created these stories to cheer his daughter while her mother was dying of cancer, which contains a fair bit of fabrication.  May was assigned to write these for commercial purposes but tried them out on his daughter to see how his ideas were working.  I found an interesting paragraph from Ronald Lankford about the mythology of Rudolph:

Much like the modern Santa Claus song, Rudolph’s story is for children; more specifically, it is a children’s story about overcoming adversity and earning, by personal effort, respect in the adult world. As a young deer (child) with a handicap that turns out to be an unrecognized asset, Rudolph comes to the rescue of an adult (Santa) at the last minute (on Christmas Eve). When Rudolph saves the day, he gains respect from both his peers (the reindeer who refused to include him in games) and the adult world. The story of Rudolph, then, is the fantasy story made to order for American children: each child has the need to express and receive approval for his or her individuality and/or special qualities. Rudolph’s story embodies the American Dream for the child, written large because of the cultural significance of Christmas.

Did you know that May penned two sequels to the original?  I didn’t.

Rudolph’s Second Christmas by Robert May, illustrated by Michael Emberly (Applewood books, c1992)

While Robert May actually penned this in 1947, it remained unknown and unpublished until 1991 when one of his daughters found the manuscript and brought it to the light of day.  In this sequel, Rudolph and Santa find letters from two children who were forgotten the year before and make the effort to come to their rescue and save the day.

Rudolph Shines Again by Robert L. May, illustrated by Lisa Papp (Grosset and Dunlap, c1981)

The earliest pub date I can get for this is 1981, but it was published withing May’s lifetime.  The story has the most character development for Rudolph, recounting how he loses the light of his nose and has to face who he is without that signature light.

But most of the current generations probably didn’t learn of Rudolph through these books.  Almost every child learning Christmas songs is bound to be taught “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”.   That song was written by Johnny Marks, Robert May’s brother-in-law and recorded by Gene Autry in 1949.  In that Christmas season release, the recording had 1.75 million sales.  Many other singers have gone on to record the song, and it’s become a regular staple of secular Christmas music.

There’s also the version of Rudolph created for the movies.  Most well-known is the Rankin/Bass Productions holiday special televised in 1964.  The stop-motion animation re-imagined Rudolph’s back story with Donner as Rudolph’s father.  Rudolph grows up in the Christmas village and endures some pretty brutal abuse from peers and adults alike, ultimately running away and discovering a group of other misfits who help him learn that being different isn’t always a bad thing.  There’s more romance, an actual villain, and danger threatening those Rudolph cares about.

I’ve my reservations about this movie classic, I didn’t grow up with it as a kid and the particularly awful treatment that Rudolph receives put me off–especially the rejection from Rudolph’s own father.

I grew up having my mom read me the original story at Christmas each year when we got the book out and loved it as only a child can.  Despite it’s commercial origins, it’s become part of Christmas traditions at our house and was one of the first books I bought for my own kids so that I could read it to them on Christmas.

What books were/are your favorites for the holidays? Comments welcome!

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About Stephanie Whelan

I'm a children's librarian with a life-long love of all things science fiction and fantasy.

Posted on December 27, 2014, in Flashback Fridays and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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