Christmas is upon us! While many across the globe are making that final trip out to trim the tree or stuff a stocking, it’s also a time to fondly remember the ghosts of Christmas past! And no, despite my penchant for telling scary stories and love of Charles Dickens, my Christmas ghosts are not maniacal at all … they are quite warm and friendly all.
As a child of the 1960s, Christmas television specials helped drive my love and excitement of the pending visit by that jolly old elf. Consider that the usual holiday music variety shows of the day … Perry Como, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Andy Williams, etc … were lovely but they were geared toward the adults. Still, little rugrats like me had much to look forward to … The Charlie Brown Christmas Special, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, The Little Drummer Boy, Mr. McGoo, and Frosty the Snowman all made their debuts in the 1960s. But my favorite? My all-time #1 best Christmas special program? That would have to be 1964’s Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer!
I think one reason for my love of Rudolph lay in my knowledge of his story that predated the TV show. I’d been raised singing that little song since before I could read. I was also a fan of singing cowboys Roy Rogers & Gene Autry, so I knew all about Rudolph from Gene’s 1949 hit song. More on that later.
I was also fascinated about where Rudolph fit into the Santa legend concerning his reindeer. ‘Twas the Night before Christmas, commonly credited to Clement Clarke Moore (1779-1863), clearly established that there were eight reindeer … Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner & Blitzen. So as a kid, I always wondered, “Where does Rudolph fit into the stable at Santa’s North Pole headquarters?”
To get the answer, we must travel back in time to 1939. Robert May, an employee in the marketing offices of Chicago’s Montgomery Ward chain, was tasked to develop some type of Christmas giveaway booklet to distribute to customers for the holiday shopping season. Knowing how much his own daughter loved the story of Hans Christian Anderson’s Ugly Duckling, May decided to use the same formula for a wayward but eventually validated magical reindeer.
After writing the tale (testing it on his 4-year old daughter, who LOVED it), May made his pitch to the bosses at Montgomery Ward. It was initially met with some concern … would the red nose be considered a representation of a drunkard? Would that offend parents and, more importantly, consumers? But all of those concerns melted away when board members saw May’s sketches of reindeer playing “reindeer games.” May was an extremely talented artist, and using reindeer models from the Lincoln Park Zoo, he’d perfectly captured the image he wanted to convey.
The Montgomery Ward CEO gave his approval. And as the story goes, Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer went down in history.
Nearly 2.5 million copies of the 9-page pamphlet were printed for that Christmas 1939 giveaway and they were eagerly devoured instantly. As paper rationing was already beginning in some major markets (and WWII just around the corner), mass production did not occur until 1946. But when it did begin? More than six million copies were printed and sold in Montgomery Ward stores that year alone!
But here’s a unique human interest story concerning the copyright of Rudolph. As Montgomery Ward held the printing rights (May had been a “work for hire” employee), May received practically nothing for his work. But in an amazing move, the company turned over all copyrights to May in 1947 to help pay for his ill wife’s medical bills. May published his story commercially the following Christmas and Rudolph guided him to a comfortable living for the remainder of his life.
In 1949, Johnny Marks wrote the famous tune and Gene Autry recorded it. The record sold two million records that year, making it the #1 selling song of 1949. To this day, it’s the #2 best-selling Christmas song of all time, behind only Bing Crosby’s immortal White Christmas.
And so, by the Christmas of 1964 (I had just turned six), I sat in rapt attention as Burl Ives opened the narration of the now classic stop-action special, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. Like so many children of that era, I fully believed in Santa, magical elves, and how an ostracized reindeer with a “very shiny nose” saved the day for little boys and girls across the globe. I used to stare into the sky on Christmas Eve night, searching excitedly for a tiny glint of red that would signify Santa was on his way with Rudolph in the lead.
So forgive me if, in my Christmas universe, Santa’s sleigh is pulled by nine reindeer instead of eight. Here on the verge of Christmas Day, let me again wish each of you a very MERRY CHRISTMAS and a HAPPY NEW YEAR! Thank you for following my humble blog for another year. I hope you’ll join me again in 2012. Until then, please excuse me … it’s kinda foggy outside so I’m heading out to look for a tiny red glow in the Northern Skies … just in case!