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"Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer" - Johnny Marks

History of an American Folk Song


Christmas wreath

Christmas wreath

photo: Getty Images

Children everywhere (and many adults) enjoy singing the catchy, rhythmical Christmas carol "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." It can be so pervasive and omnipresent at Christmas time, we forget to think about where and how we learned the song, where it came from, and what it's even about. "Rudolph" may have begun as a story book to be sold to children at a department store, but the song follows the basic story-song tradition inherent in American folk music. Though I can't speak to where and when you may have learned the song about Rudolph, the story about where the song itself began is fairly easy to document. 

The story of Rudolph, Santa Claus' special ninth reindeer with the illuminating nose, was written in 1939 by Robert L. May. He was an employee of the department store Montgomery Ward, and the store created a book about Rudolph to give away to children on Christmas. May's brother-in-law, Johnny Marks, turned the story of Rudolph into a song in 1949. It became a hit for Gene Autry and has since become so enmeshed in American culture that it's considered a folk song despite the fact that it's not in the public domain.

The typical story about Santa Claus contends that he is a magical sort of grandfather elf who lives in the North Pole. He operates a workshop of elves making toys year-round to supply for the annual Christmas gift-giving bounty. Toys are made at Santa's workshop then distributed around the world by Santa Claus himself, who rides around the globe on a magical sleigh pulled by eight tiny flying reindeer. 

The story of Rudolph adds to the Santa Claus tale by including a ninth reindeer who is rejected by all the other deer due to his ridiculous glowing nose. His nose is so big and red, it glows a bright red light. How a reindeer could have a light-up nose doesn't make any sense to the other reindeer, who make fun of Rudolph because of it. But, one particularly dark and foggy Christmas Eve, Santa asks Rudolph to fly at the very front of the pack, so that his glowing nose might serve as a beacon through the fog and help Santa find his way. Of course, Rudolph complies and winds up saving the day, his natural-born difference form teh other reindeer turning out to be a blessing in disguise. 

"Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" Lyrics

The lyrics to "Rudolph" are based largely on May's story about Santa Claus and his magical reindeer. Its theme is similar to the story of the ugly duckling who grew up into a beautiful swan. Rudolph is teased and rejected by the other reindeer until he proves himself useful and industrious. It's a very American dream-like story line about how everyone can be special and important when they use their gifts and talents. The lyrics are very simple and memorable, and follow a very basic "Once upon a time"-like storyline:

Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer
had a very shiny nose
and if you ever saw it, 
you would even say it glows.

All of the other reindeer
used to laugh and call him names
they never let poor Rudolph
join in any reindeer games

Then one foggy Christmas Eve
Santa came to say:
"Rudolph with your nose so bright,
won't you guide my sleigh tonight?"

...and so on.

You can learn more about Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer if you purchase/download the Dixieland Ramblers' version of "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer," or read the full lyrics of the song.

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