Friday, December 2, 2016

The Heartbreaking—And Uplifting—Inside Story of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

This is an excerpt from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: An American Hero, by Ronald D. Lankford, Jr.

I never planned to write a book about Rudolph. He was so much a part of my childhood, so much a part of the kind of Christmas I had grown up with, that I just accepted him as having always been there. It did not occur to me that Rudolph—the modest hero with a secret resource—reflected deeply held American values.

My innocence about the connection between Rudolph and our holiday values started to change a couple of years ago when I was writing about American Christmas songs. One of those songs, naturally, was Johnny Marks's “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” As I began researching, several things occupied my thoughts. Rudolph, as James H. Barnett noted in 1954, was the only new addition to our Christmas lore in a hundred years. While Barnett wrote this in the 1950's, it remains true: as much as we love Frosty and other Christmas critters, none of them have become as central as Rudolph. The truth of this, though, fails to explain why Rudolph was accepted into Christmas lore so quickly. Likewise, it fails to explain how Rudolph's image has remained expansive enough to speak to Americans across—as I write this—seven decades.


The origin of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer also fascinated me. Many people, listening to the song or watching the 1964 cartoon, had completely forgotten Rudolph’s origins as a promotion in 1939 and 1946 for Montgomery Ward. Unlike Santa Claus, Rudolph had no European folk myths to draw from. Instead, he was born in the imagination of copywriter Robert L. May, who was employed by Montgomery Ward. The idea was simply to give away thousands and thousands of copies of Rudolph, in booklet form, at Ward’s six-hundred-plus stores to children accompanied by a parent, drawing the family into the department store for the all-important holiday season. Merchandise, the same kind that accompanies any Disney movie promotion today, would follow.

Despite these commercial origins, children and even parents accepted Rudolph as though he were the genuine article. Folklorists could label the Jolly Green Giant “fakelore” or use the term “industrial folklore” to define the Trix rabbit, but children—learning about the reindeer in books, View-Master reels, a game, a cartoon, in song, and multiple pieces of merchandise—seemed oblivious to academic concerns. Clearly, Robert L. May wrote Rudolph in 1939; equally clear, he wrote Rudolph at the request of his supervisor as a work-for-hire at Montgomery Ward. Likewise, a popular groundswell greeted Rudolph on his introduction in 1939 and reintroduction in 1946; this groundswell was heightened considerably, however, by Montgomery Ward’s giveaway of six million copies of the Rudolph booklet. While we can argue whether commercial or creative forces exerted more influence over Rudolph’s growth in popular culture, both had a role to play. Rudolph’s grounding in both commercial and folk culture produced, I believe, an intriguing paradox worth looking into.

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[A 1948 article in Coronet Magazine by Stanley Frankel] begins by returning to May and his four-year-old daughter in the family’s Chicago apartment in the winter of 1938:

On a December night in Chicago ten years ago, a little girl climbed  onto her father’s lap and asked a question. It was a simple question, asked in childish curiosity, yet it had a heart-rending effect on Robert May.
       “Daddy,” four-year-old Barbara May asked, “why isn’t my Mommy just like everybody else’s mommy?

May’s wife, Evelyn, had been suffering from cancer for the last two years. Frankel continued: “The terrible ordeal already had shattered two adult lives. Now, May suddenly realized, the happiness of his growing daughter was also in jeopardy.” Barbara’s question, asked in the midst of the December holiday season, demanded an answer.

Frankel sketches May’s family predicament against the backdrop of dire financial circumstances. In 1938 the Depression remained an economic reality for many Americans. For the May family, doctor’s visits and medicine for Evelyn stretched an already thin budget, putting the family into debt. The Mays’ living space is described as a “shabby two-room apartment,” the kind of place a Montgomery Ward copywriter might inhabit. Clearly Robert May, the skinny, picked-on underdog since early childhood, had missed the opportunities of his Dartmouth colleagues. “Now, at 33, May was deep in debt, depressed and miserable.”

May’s salvation, however, lay close at hand. To answer Barbara’s question he would create a children’s story drawn from the emotional tumult of his own childhood: the story of a young reindeer named Rudolph who had a shiny red nose. Each night, Barbara would ask her father to recite the adventures of Rudolph one more time. Finally, May decided to prepare a rudimentary copy of the book for her as a Christmas gift, writing the poem in verse and mimicking “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” Pouring himself into the project, he wanted to provide a worthy gift for Barbara, despite the family’s meager finances. As he prepared the booklet, however, tragedy struck: Evelyn died. Instead of setting the project aside during this period of grief, however, May continued to work on the booklet, determined to finish it by Christmastime.


At this nadir, with May left alone to raise his young daughter, fate intervened. He was invited to an office Christmas party at Montgomery Ward, and while he wanted to stay at home, colleagues persuaded him to attend. He brought along Barbara’s gift and read it to his office-mates that evening. At first they laughed along with Rudolph’s antics—May’s poem seemed like no more than another part of the evening’s fun and games. But as May continued, the crowd settled down and listened quietly. When he reached the end, everyone broke into applause. After several executives requested copies of Rudolph, the young reindeer and May’s future was set on a new course.

Ronald D. Lankford, Jr. is the author of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: An American Hero

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