Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
Where did he come from, and what did that shiny nose *really* mean?
Hi! I’m Joey, the creator of Fun Fact Friyay, the newsletter for curious people. Today’s issue is full of holiday cheer.
This fun fact is presented to you by Craig Leener.
Craig is the author of the Zeke Archer trilogy, including This Was Never About Basketball, All Roads Lead to Lawrence, and This Was Always About Basketball. His most recent book, There’s No Basketball on Mars, is an adventure of cosmic proportions, packed with great action and a ton of heart.
These are terrific and engaging books. I know I was eagerly turning pages to see what came next, and I bet you’ll have a similar result. Or you might excitedly flick through your e-reader if you prefer a digital format.
So, as you’re deciding what to read heading into the new year — or are already plotting for 2024 — Craig’s basketball collection is worth checking out. These books also make a great holiday gift for young, intrepid readers who are fans of the game. Grab a copy of one or all four here.
Today’s fact: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was created as a coloring book for the department store Montgomery Ward in 1939.
In 1939, a man named Robert L. May was given an assignment from Montgomery Ward, a department store headquartered in Chicago.
May’s job was to design a “cheery children’s book” for the retailer that they could give away to customers for the holidays. The company had previously been buying coloring books, but thought a little in-house love would be better (and, you know, would save money).
The main directive was that the book should be “an animal story,” with a character like Ferdinand the Bull, who had starred in a Disney short film the year before.
May was sitting at his desk, wondering how to craft this story. His daughter liked reindeer, and, as a child, May was treated similarly to how Rudolph is treated by the other reindeer.
As writer’s block set in, so did a fog across Lake Michigan. That fog blocked May from being able to see the city skyline out the window, and it gave him an idea. Here’s how May explained it:
"Suddenly, I had it! A nose! A bright red nose that would shine through fog like a spotlight."
The power of windows! Microsoft would be proud.
Montgomery Ward distributed 2.4 million copies during Rudolph’s first year of publication. The story almost didn’t get greenlit at all, though.
Back in the 1930s, having a red nose meant you were a big ol’ drunkypants. Having a children’s book about a reindeer drunk off his gourd was not going to fly, but luckily, May knew a great illustrator at work.
He asked Denver Gillen to draw cute reindeer like you’d see at the zoo — or on my neighborhood streets, which is terrifying when you’re driving at night — and Gillen’s drawings were lovely enough that Montgomery Ward relented.
Today, red noses have all kinds of fun connotations, including as a fundraiser to end child poverty.
What’s in a name?
Rudolph’s name almost wasn’t Rudolph at all. May considered Rollo or Reginald as alternative monikers.
Rollo is kind of quirky, though people might mistake it for the candy, and we can’t have that.
I personally think Reginald is a great name for an animal, but that extra syllable would really throw off the meter of the story, which is written as a poem.
Speaking of reindeer names, do you know the other eight?
We hear their names in the 1823 Clement C. Moore poem A Visit From Saint Nicholas, more commonly called ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas. You know how the reindeer roll call goes:
"Now! Dasher, now! Dancer, now! Prancer, and Vixen/On! Comet, on! Cupid, on! Dunder and Blixem.”
Wait a minute…Dunder and Blixem? Is this a typo from The Office?
If you also thought those last two were Donner and Blitzen, well, you’re kind of right. Moore adjusted those last two names in different versions of the story to be more standard Dutch, including Donder and Blitzen.
In fact, Moore never used “Donner” at all. That spelling (a modern German variant) only came about in the 1900s, and Moore was very much not alive by then.
In his original poem, we get Dunder (meaning “thunder” in colloquial New York Dutch) and Blixem (“lightning”).
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