You know Dasher and Dancer and Prancer and Vixen
Comet and Cupid and Donner and Blitzen
But do you recall the most famous reindeer of all?
And you likely know what holiday song begins with those lines. The story of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” both as a song and as a television special, has been a staple of the Christmas season for generations. The story of how it came to be, however, is not as well known. It’s an unlikely story, one not out of place in a season that celebrates miracles.
Robert L. May was a catalog writer for the department store Montgomery Ward with dreams of being a novelist. In 1939, he lived in Chicago with his ailing wife and their young daughter. He was tasked with creating a coloring book that the store would hand out to children for free at Christmastime. Growing up, May had felt like an outsider due to his small stature, so the reindeer that became the central character of his book, Rudolph, took on the attributes of a misfit as well. In this case, the characteristic that set him apart was a shiny red nose.
May’s wife died in July, but he insisted on finishing his story, later writing, “I needed Rudolph now more than ever.” The final result was a hit. In fact, Montgomery Ward printed over two million copies in 1939. In 1947, the company gave May the copyright to his story. Working with his brother-in-law, the composer Johnny Marks, he used the rights to make a song about Rudolph.
Marks shipped the song to Perry Como, Bing Crosby, and Dinah Shore, but all opted not to record it. According to legend, another singer prepared to pass as well, but his wife found the song charming and persuaded him to record it. And so it would be Gene Autry, the Singing Cowboy, who would first record the version of “Rudolph” that became a staple of the Christmas season.
Autry recorded and popularized other songs that remain holiday favorites. One song came from an experience in an annual Hollywood Christmas parade. Autry regularly participated, riding his horse ahead of Santa Claus as they proceeded down Santa Claus Lane. One year, he heard a child shout in eager anticipation, “Here comes Santa Claus!” Sure enough, that became the title of the song.
As its title suggests, most of “Here Comes Santa Claus (Right Down Santa Claus Lane)” expresses excitement about a visit from St. Nicholas, the toys he will bring, and the joys of the season. But the song’s final verse also speaks to the higher meaning of this time of year:
Here comes Santa Claus! Here comes Santa Claus!
Right down Santa Claus Lane!
He’ll come around when the chimes ring out,
then it’s Christmas morn again.
Peace on earth will come to all
if we just follow the light.
Let’s give thanks to the Lord above,
‘Cause Santa Claus comes tonight.
Autry was not a man of strong religious affiliation, but he sang of the same good news told to shepherds keeping watch in the Judean countryside so many centuries ago:
“Glory to God in the highest,
And on earth peace, goodwill toward men!”
Songs about Rudolph and Santa Claus are welcome additions to Christmastime, and sometimes without the listeners even knowing it, they spread the good news that Jesus’ birth represents to Christians, such as the reassurance in “Here Comes Santa Claus” that “peace on earth will come to all” and the encouragement to “give thanks to the Lord above.” My hope is that, whatever your beliefs, this holiday season brings peace and goodwill to you. Best wishes for a merry Christmas and a happy New Year.
This column will be the last of 2017 and will resume its regular schedule after the first of the year. If you have questions, concerns, or comments, feel free to contact my office. You can call my Abingdon office at 276-525-1405 or my Christiansburg office at 540-381-5671. To reach my office via email, please visit my website at www.morgangriffith.house.gov. Also on my website is the latest material from my office, including information on votes recently taken on the floor of the House of Representatives.