For years, the Chicago-based Montgomery Ward department store chain had been giving away coloring books as promotional gimmicks during Christmas. Some executive decided that they could save money by generating a giveaway booklet in house, so they tapped copywriter Robert L. May for the job.

The story of Rudolph is based on "The Ugly Duckling" and memories of childhood bullying. He rejected the names Reginald and Rollo, finally settling on Rudolph. But the executives balked at the idea of a red nose, fearing the association with drunkeness. So May dispatched his friend Denver Gillen, who worked in Montgomery Ward's art department, to the Lincoln Park Zoo to sketch some deer, and Gillen's drawings convinced the hesitant higher-ups.

The chain distributed 2.4 million copies of May's story in 1939 and despite wartime paper shortages managed to give away millions more. May's brother-in-law Johnny Marks turned the story into a song, but many singers were hesitant to mess with the Santa Claus legend. Finally, Gene Autry recorded it in 1949, and it became second only to "White Christmas" as the best selling song of all time. Most people know the Marks/Autry version and don't realize that Marks made some significant alterations to the story.

Another part to the story that many people don't know is that May was deeply in dept due to medical bills from his wife's illness, which she died from around the time of Rudolph's first appearance. However, Montgomery Ward owned the copyright to the story as he created it work for hire as an employee of the chain, so May didn't see a penny of the flood of money coming in. But a sympathetic corporate president, Sewell Avery, gave May the copyright in 1947, and May lived comfortably until he died in 1976.

A TV special narrated by Burl Ives appeared on the NBC show "General Electric Fantasy Hour" in 1964 and has become an annual holiday staple.


So I've been thinking about Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, and I have a few questions. Leaving aside for now the ongoing workplace abuse suffered by Rudolph for his physical deformity, I have to wonder how a shiny nose would be of any use in an aviation environment. My car is pretty shiny (when it's clean) and if it's been properly polished then sure, you might say it glows - but when I'm driving at night, I turn my lights on. Trying to navigate through mist or cloud cover without any kind of actual light is a disaster waiting to happen, and the dim glow of a single red nose just enables the other reindeer (at best) to follow the leader - again, pretty strange if they're all tied together anyway.

Then there's the working environment - as I saw mentioned the other day, you can't emotionally abuse someone for years and then ask them for a favour. Assuming the reindeer serve no other purpose during the year, and that Rudolph's nose is actually an asset in the dark, I have to wonder about the kind of work environment that allows such a situation to continue. Here is an employee who is habitually mocked and abused, but must suddenly take on a leadership position at a moments notice. Santa has been delivering presents for quite some time now, and we can assume that misty Christmas nights are pretty common, meaning that this cycle of abuse and momentary redemption must be ongoing (especially since most of the song transcripts I could find mention the exact same situation over at least two verses).

Granted, an overweight man who spends the night in children's bedrooms and has elves construct toys in polar factories is probably just the employer to allow such a situation to arise, but there is one other tantalising possibility to explain the continuing abuse hurled upon Rudolph by his fellow reindeer: alcohol.

An alcoholic Rudolph could have a red and shiny nose, and may well be scorned by his fellow reindeer for his drinking habits - no wonder the other reindeer wouldn't want Rudolph to join their reindeer games. How this would make him suitable to lead a flight team is a tough question, but Santa is (if we go way back) originally seen as Odin, and the leader of the Wild Hunt - it's possible that in that portrayal Rudolph was being hunted...

If we look to a slightly more modern Santa, we come across another dark alternative, not in the gifts that Santa gives, but the ones that he receives. Nowadays children traditionally leave out milk and cookies for Santa, but in many parts of the world it's still common to leave out sherry or beer. Is this why Rudolph's nose is red? Does he, being in front, get first dibs on all of that alcohol - or at least whatever the fat man doesn't want?

Like any children's story, it's far darker than it first appears - locked in an abusive workplace relationship, Rudolph is actively encouraged to feed his addiction each year by the same employees and family who mock him. He has no escape, save perhaps for those Christmas nights where there is no cloud in the sky - and given that Santa delivers worldwide, and there are always clouds somewhere...

There may just be a silver lining to global warming after all.

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