When my daughter Talia was small, we were driving around looking at Christmas decorations and passed one house with Santa and his reindeer mixed with a manger scene. In her infinite wisdom, Talia asked “Why is Jesus there? What does he have to do with Christmas?”
So I told her the story. “It was a cold and foggy night in a little town in Bethlehem. Jack Frost was nipping at the baby Jesus’s nose and Santa was preparing to deliver his gifts. Jesus had asked for a pair of skates, a sled and picture book, but all Santa had left was frankinsence, gold and myrrh, which he bought from three wise men he passed on the way. While chestnuts roasted on an open fire, Rudolph guided the sleigh with his red nose, almost knocking down Frosty the Snowman when he landed. Santa put the presents under the verdant branches of the Christmas tree, ate a few cookies and flew off into the silent night past the partridge in the pear tree.”
Or something like that.
One would be hard-pressed to find a story more convoluted than the hodge-podge of fragments that have been thrown together under the guise of the Christmas story. Most of us probably know that Rudolph is not mentioned in the New Testament, but we might be surprised to know that the three kings can only be found in the Gospel of Matthew, that the number three is not mentioned and they are called Magi, not kings or wise men, more likely Zoroasterian astrologers than kings.
Much has been written about the origins of Santa Claus, Christmas trees, Yule logs, mistletoe, the snow-covered lit villages (all rare commodities in ancient Bethlehem) and other pasted-on traditions that became part of our image of Christmas. These stories too numerous to fit into the Blog format, but let’s talk about the reindeer. Is that how the Kings—oops, wise men—oops, Magi—rode in to visit? Might there have been 8 of them?
It took 1823 years before the reindeer got into the picture, flying in on the imagination of Clement Moore when he penned “The Night Before Christmas” (real title: "A Visit from St. Nicholas"). He made them up and named them and they traveled from his pen into our collective imagination to become an indelible part of the lore. 116 years later (that’s 1939), Rudolph joined the team because of an advertising campaign by the store Montgomery Ward’s. They had an employee named Robert May write a story to be given away to children and voila! Donder and Blitzen were welcoming Rudolph (after some initial harassment) and some 2 million children reading the free copy given to them when their parents shopped at the store. Letters of appreciation starting pouring in (not to May—he was the anonymous author) and more were printed.
Eight years later, a cartoon short was made and two years after that, May’s brother-in-law Johnny Marks wrote the Rudolph song. Gene Autry, the media cowboy, recorded the song in Christmas of 1949, eventually selling 25 million copies, until the 1980’s, the second best-selling record of all time. Comic books, TV specials and feature-length films followed and with books, sheet music, records, TV shows and movies behind it, Rudolph joined the weird club of Jesus, the Three Kings/Magi/ Wise Men, St. Nicholas/ Santa, Dasher-Prancer et al to become a firmly entrenched icon of the Christmas season.
There is an archive in Dartmouth College, May’s Alma Mater, with more details of the story, including a list of other names May considered. Top of the list was Rollo and Reginald. Just one decision differently made and we’d all be singing about Reggie the Red-Nosed Reindeer.