Welcome to The 12 Days of Christmas Songs: an attempt to uncover the forgotten history of some of the most memorable festive tunes. From December 14 through 25, we’ll be tackling one secular song and one holy song each day.
If you leave aside the tiny detail that Rudolph is a mythical reindeer, his story—triumph in the face of adversity, and in fact triumph by way of adversity—is wonderfully human. It’s the hero’s journey mixed with She’s All That mixed with Harry Potter mixed with, pretty much, any story whose plot revolves around heroes who have been made heroic by way of their very weirdness.
So it’s remarkable that “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” began its life as an extremely commercial story. Rudolph—®, and all that—was created in 1939 by Montgomery Ward, which traditionally gave away children’s coloring books during the holiday season. After the store asked one of its in-house copywriters, Robert May, to come up with a “cheery” character to star in a new round of booklets, May came up with Rudolph. (Well, actually, he came up with “Rollo” and “Reginald” before settling on Rudolph.)
The story—Montgomery Ward distributed some 2.4 million copies of the book—spawned several sequels. It also, in 1949, led to a song. Written in 1949 by May’s brother-in-law, Johnny Marks, a radio producer, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” set the spunky reindeer’s story to music—a song first recorded by the singer Harry Brannon, and then, more famously, by Gene Autry later that year. It focused on the thing that makes Rudolph’s story so appealing and enduring: his transformation from misfit to hero.
You know how it goes: Rudolph, possessor of a nose that is both red and “very shiny,” doesn’t fit in with the other reindeer (reindeernormativity, in this case, mostly involving matte, colorless snouts). Those other reindeer bully him for being different, laughing at him and calling him names and—ouch, ouch, ouch—never letting poor Rudolph join in any reindeer games.
The lyrics of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” are, certainly, sparse. In service of the song’s speedy clip, things jump very quickly: One moment, the reindeer bros are bullying Rudolph; the next, they’re celebrating him. Rudolph, on a foggy Christmas Eve, puts his shiny “defect” to good use. And then suddenly, jarringly:
Then how all the reindeer loved him,
As they shouted out with glee,
‘Rudolph the red-nose Reindeer
You’ll go down in history’
Why do they change their attitude so quickly? Because they’ve always felt a little bit bad about how they’ve treated Rudolph, and his sleigh-guiding gives them a chance to redeem themselves? Because, despite their mockery, they’ve always, actually, been a little bit envious of their colleague’s uniquely shiny schnoz? Because of an extremely literal interpretation of shine theory?
We never, through the song’s lyrics, find out for sure. But that is the beauty of the whole thing. Rudolph is a superhero, essentially, and he gets, through the song that tells his story, the comic book-like treatment of a superhero: He is all bold lines and bright colors, justice triumphing against the lack of it, the special winning out over the boringly conventional. We—the people who read about him, and hear about him—are left to fill in the blanks. Rudolph, the little reindeer that could, is an archetype. And so is his very shiny nose.