The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer

Words and Music by Johnny Marks, 1949


1949: "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" by U.S. songwriter Johnny Marks, 40, who has adapted a verse written in 1939 by his brother-in-law, Robert L. May, for a Montgomery Ward promotional children’s book.

There is a widely reproduced story concerning the creation of Rudolph by Robert May.  It is not altogether accurate, but is reproduced here for the sake of completeness.

Rudolph The Ninth Reindeer

Rudolph, "the most famous reindeer of all," was born over a hundred years after his eight flying counterparts. The red-nosed wonder was the creation of Robert L. May, a copywriter at the Montgomery Ward department store. In 1939, May wrote a Christmas-themed story-poem to help bring holiday traffic into his store. Using a similar rhyme pattern to Moore's "'Twas the Night Before Christmas," May told the story of Rudolph, a young reindeer who was teased by the other deer because of his large, glowing, red nose. But, When Christmas Eve turned foggy and Santa worried that he wouldn't be able to deliver gifts that night, the former outcast saved Christmas by leading the sleigh by the light of his red nose. Rudolph's message-that given the opportunity, a liability can be turned into an asset-proved popular. Montgomery Ward sold almost two and a half million copies of the story in 1939. When it was reissued in 1946, the book sold over three and half million copies. Several years later, one of May's friends, Johnny Marks, wrote a short song based on Rudolph's story (1949). It was recorded by Gene Autry and sold over two million copies. Since then, the story has been translated into twenty-five languages and been made into a television movie, narrated by Burl Ives, which has charmed audiences every year since 1964.

Source: The History Channel

William Studwell, The Christmas Carol Reader

Reindeer are not a recent topic for Christmas songs. Ever since Clement Moore developed the modern myth of Santa Claus in his 1822 classic "Twas the Night Before Christmas," reindeer have been closely associated with Santa and have been mentioned in carols. As far back as the 1850s or 1860s, Benjamin Hanby alluded to the animals in his "Up on the Housetop." Two other holiday songs with reindeer featured were Ken Darby's 1942 musical rendition of Moore's poem and the 1946 hit, "Here Comes Santa Claus" by Gene Autry and Oakley Haldeman.

But Johnny Marks' 1949 phenomenon "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" was a lot more than the mere mention of deer. Rudolph was the first important new Christmas character since Moore's introduction of the magnanimous Christmas elf. The success of Rudolph apparently encouraged the subsequent appearance of other imaginative and lasting fictional personalities such as Frosty the Snowman, the Chipmunks, and the Grinch. In addition, Marks' song, although not the first highly popular novelty carol to appear after World War II, was the supreme prototype of Christmas novelties and possibly served as the impetus for similar songs later on.

Marks, though, was not the creator of the Rudolph character. In 1939, Marks' brother-in-law, Robert L. May, developed the story of Rudolph as part of an advertising promotion for Montgomery Ward stores [some sources state that it was a children's book; others state that it was a comic book].

[It caught the fancy of Hollywood. In either 1942 or 1944 — the sources differ — a cartoon Rudolph was released.]

In 1947, Wards graciously gave the copyright for Rudolph to May, who published the tale in book form that year. Instantly, the little volume became a best-seller. No doubt inspired by the extraordinary success of May's book, Marks adapted the delightful story into equally charming lyrics, added a very catchy tune, obtained a big-name recording artist, and an even more extraordinary commercial success soon ensued. The initial recorder of "Rudolph," movie cowboy and country-western singer Gene Autry, was not new to the Christmas record game or to the reindeer game. Somewhat earlier he had sung his own composition "Here Comes Santa Claus" into the hearts of holiday audiences. "Rudolph," however, far surpassed the popularity of Autry's previous recording, quickly reaching the top of the music ratings near the end of 1949. It made Marks (1909-1985) an overnight celebrity and facilitated his later composition of a batch of other holiday songs.

Only one other twentieth-century American popular carol, "White Christmas," has exceeded the public acceptance of "Rudolph." Recorded in many versions, selling many millions of records, "Rudolph" has rapidly evolved into a singular Christmas institution. A variety of holiday merchandise has been marketed based on the beloved little animal whose brightly shining nose led Santa and his sleigh through the crisis of a foggy Christmas Even And not one but three holiday specials were produced with Rudolph as the star. In 1964 the annual favorite Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, with "Snowman" Burl Ives narrating and singing, was first telecast.

William L. Simon, ed., Reader’s Digest Merry Christmas Songbook (1981)

The statistics are staggering: more than 160 million recordings by more than 500 different performers and some 7million copies of sheet music, not to mention toys, clothing, watches, all bearing the image of a shiny-nosed deer. The cause of it all? "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer' by Johnny Marks, one of the most successful songs of all time. Cowboy star Gene Autry introduced "Rudolph' at Madison Square Garden in New York City in 1949. His recording has since sold more than 12 of those 160 million recordings, a half-million in 1980 alone-making it the second biggest-selling recording after Bing Crosby s version of "White Christmas. Rudolph has inspired several television specials, and the little reindeer is still a popular favorite every Christmas, joining Dancer and Prancer and the other six reindeer around Santa's sleigh.

The animated classic of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was set in Christmas Town was developed by the Rankin-Bass studio using the "Animagic" animated-puppet process. Produced by Arthur Rankin, Jr., and co-produced by Jules Bass, the animation was written by Romeo Muller, adapted from the story by Robert L. May. Lyrics and music by Johnny Marks — who wrote the original "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" song. It was directed by Larry Roemer, with narration by Burl Ives, who assumed the persona of "Sam the Snowman" — who looked a lot like a stylized Ives, who sang the title song plus "Silver and Gold" and "A Holly Jolly Christmas." In 1998, the classic had some footage restored (which hadn’t been seen since the original aired in 1964), and the color was digitally restored to the original hues.

Other songs performed included "Jingle, Jingle, Jingle" (sung by Santa), "We are Santa’s Elves" (performed by the Elves), "Why Am I such a Misfit" (just a couple of lines sung first by Hermy and then by Rudolph), "There’s Always Tomorrow" (sung by Clarisse, Rudolph’s doe-friend), "We’re a Couple of Misfits" (a duet sung by Hermy and Rudolph, replacing "Fame and Fortune"), and "We’re On the Island of Misfit Toys" (sung by the Misfit Toys Choir; the refrain of this song was "When Christmas Day is here, the most wonderful day of the year"). The program ran long in 1998’s airing and my tape of the show didn’t capture the last few minutes. Whether or not any attribution of voices or singers was given was unknown.

Other characters included the Abominable Snow Monster of the North (a.k.a. a "Bumble"), Hermy the Else (who’s rather be a dentist), Yukon Cornelius (a prospector about whom Ives sang "Silver and Gold"), Charlie-in-the-Box (official sentry of the Island of Misfit Toys), King Moon Racer (King of the Island), Santa Claus, Mrs. Claus and the following reindeer: Fireball (Rudolph’s best friend while times were good), Clarisse (Rudolph’s loyal doe-friend), Comet (coach of the yearlings), Dasher (Rudolph’s dad), and Donner (father of Clarisse).

The animated classic bears little connection to the story in the original book. Click here for more information about the animation

Two follow-up programs, Rudolph's Shiny New Year 1976), narrated by Red Skelton, and Rudolph and Frosty [rerun as Rudolph and Frosty's Christmas in July, 1979], were unfortunately not nearly as well received [although they are annually broadcast during the holiday season]. All of these supplemental activities, though, have helped to keep Rudolph and his nose in the forefront of the ongoing secular celebration of Christmas.

Rudolph’s Shiny New Year: From Warner Brothers, a Rankin/Bass Production, 1975. How Rudolph saves the New Year ... just days after saving Christmas. Told and sung by Red Skelton as "Father Time" and "Baby Bear." Also featuring Frank Gorshin, Morry Amsterdam, Hal Perry, Paul Frees, and Billie Richards. Music and lyrics by Johnny Marks. Written by Romeo Muller. Produced and directed by Arthur Rankin, Jr. and Jules Bass. Songs include "Have a Hap, Hap, Happy New Year," "Turn Back the Years," "When Things Go Wrong (It’s Raining Sunshine)," "What a Wonderful World We Live In," "There’s a Happy Celebration," and "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer."

Characters include Happy, the baby New Year; Eon the Terrible, a vulture-like character; General Time; Quarter-Past-Five, the camel; Father Time; Nanny Nine-O-Clock, the nurse; Big Ben, a whale; O.M. — the cave man Father Time in 1 million BC; Sev, Father Time for 1776 (Ben Franklin); and Santa Claus.

November 23, 1999


Rudolph lights up season as year's top Christmas Carol

DEKALB—The most famous reindeer of all--who incidentally was born in Chicago, not the North Pole--is celebrating the 50th anniversary of his theme song this Christmas.
To mark the occasion, William Studwell, a professor at Northern Illinois University, has named Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer the 1999 Christmas Carol of the Year. Studwell is the nation’s leading expert on Christmas carols and various other musical genres, ranging from the obscure and under appreciated to the widely popular.
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer went down in history back in 1949 when Johnny Marks wrote the famous Christmas tune. But the character was actually created 10 years earlier by Marks’ brother-in-law, Robert L. May, for a Chicago-based Montgomery Ward advertising campaign, making the reindeer a decade older than his famous theme song.
Although it was May who spun a best-selling tale based on the reindeer, it was Marks who guided Rudolph into the national spotlight.
The charming story coupled with Marks’ catchy lyrics and music, as well as the talent of the famous singing cowboy, Gene Autry, helped Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer fly to the top of the music charts. Marks went on to write other holiday favorites, including Most Wonderful Time of the Year, Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree and Holly Jolly Christmas.
"Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer became the biggest Christmas hit since 1942’s White Christmas, and Rudolph became the first significant new holiday character since Santa Claus and his elves," Studwell said.
"Rudolph is a cute and loveable character," he said. "People like him because he was the ‘under-reindeer’—the lowest on the pecking order. But he overcame that to become a superhero of Christmas."
"Rudolph’s brightly-lit nose and heroic stance have brought him to the forefront of Christmas novelties. An explosion of Christmas merchandise hit the markets after Rudloph hit the airwaves," Studwell said. "Rudolph’s fame also sparked the trend for the creation of other holiday characters, such as Frosty the Snowman and the Grinch. Even the schoolyard parodies of the song indicate that Rudolph has indeed "arrived" in everyday culture," Studwell said.
"Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer really got the conspicuous consumption of Christmas merchandise going. It was the first great novelty song after World War II—people were ready for something new. The song came out during a time of new prosperity—people had money to spend. And this trend has continued with the introduction and merchandising of other Christmas characters," Studwell said.
In addition to having a song written for him, Rudolph also enjoyed fame as an actor. His first stint, which has long been forgotten, was a 9-minute cartoon in 1944. Rudolph’s big break came in 1964 when he starred in his own Christmas special with a soundtrack written by Marks. Although that show has since become a holiday television tradition, Rudolph's subsequent specials, Rudolph’s Shiny New Year and Rudolph and Frosty, haven’t been nearly as popular.
Studwell’s expertise on Christmas carols began in 1972 when he researched Oh, Holy Night to create a pamphlet of the song as a gift for a family member. Since that time, Studwell has become a leading expert on Christmas music and has penned several books on the topic, including "Christmas Carols: A Reference Guide," (1985); "The Christmas Carol Reader," (1995); "Publishing Glad Tidings: Essays on Christmas Music," (1998); and "The End of the Year: Twelve Original Holiday Songs,"(1999), which features his own carols. He has also written books on ballet, opera, circus and barbershop quartet music, as well as collections of state and college fight songs.
In 1986, Studwell began naming a Christmas Carol of the Year to share the little-known stories behind the favorite holiday classics and keep the songs in the spotlight.

The Naming of the Deer, or,
Why Clement Moore, with the Collaboration of
St. Nicholas, Gave Those Odd Names to the Eight Deer

by William E. Studwell
Northern Illinois University

In the process of preparing an homage to Clement Clarke Moore (1779-1863), the author of "A Visit from S. Nicholas," on the 175th anniversary of the publication of that classic poem in the Troy Sentinel on Dec. 23, 1823, an intriguing document was accidentally discovered. A few pages of notes, apparently in the hand of New Yorker Moore, a professor of Oriental and Greek literature, has been recently discovered. A section of these notes reveals the reason why Moore wrote the poem. In December 1822 Moore was personally visited by St. Nicholas himself, an incident which normally sober Moore, in hindsight, believed could have been a dream. The purpose of the visit, according to Moore's notes, was a desire by Nicholas to clarify the public perception of himself and his activities, which at the time was confused and inaccurate. Respecting Moore's intellectual and personal integrity, Nicholas asked Moore to write and publish a literary piece based on information supplied by Nicholas. The result was the quickly-written "Twas the Night Before Christmas," which as reported by Moore, thoroughly delighted the benevolent Saint. The notes reveal little more about the incident except for some details about the names and personalities of Nicholas' symmetrical set of eight reindeer.
A summary of Moore's reindeer commentary, based on information from Nicholas, follows:
Dasher -- the left side leader; travels well in short quick spurts, a perfect requirement for fast house-to-house dashes; also a dashing role model for the other seven deer.
Dancer -- the left number 2 deer; name alliterative with Dasher; has well-trained hoofs to maintain stability on snowy rooftops.
Prancer -- the left number 3 deer; Dancer's twin; also has skillful hoofs for rooftop maneuvers but is less disciplined than Dancer.
Vixen -- the left rear deer; name rhymes with Blitzen; has much emotional energy but is unpredictable.
Comet -- the right side leader; like his astronomical namesake, is both speedy and enduring; also commands attention, a must for leaders.
Cupid -- the right number 2 deer; name alliterative with Comet; moves as fast as Cupid's arrow but is too perfidious to lead.
Donner -- the right number 3 deer; name derived from the German word for thunder; is very strong, but not very enduring.
Blitzen -- the right rear deer; Donner's closest companion; name derived from the German word for lightning; the fastest and most energetic of the eight, but the least likely to last all Christmas eve.


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