In 1939 Santa’s crew gained a new member: ‘The only original addition to the folklore of Santa Claus in the twentieth century’ is how sociologist James Barnett loftily greeted the red nosed interloper into the pack.
I’d always assumed Rudolph was invented for the song by Gene Autry, but this story written by the advertising copywriter Robert L . May. predates it by ten years. It’s a charming confection that uses the same meter as Clement C. Moore’s A Visit from Saint Nicholas, even and adapting the opening lines to, ‘’Twas the day before Christmas’
To this May fuses an Ugly Duckling narrative adding a few bizarre twists to make it interesting. I’d never really considered the mechanics of Rudolph’s rosy nose before, assuming that it was just a charming physical quirk. Or a result of too much Schnapps. But here we see that it doesn’t just glow it acts as a full on foglight.
Rudolph is less ugly duckling more X-Reindeer, accompanied by a sleigh bound Professor Xavier Claus, a man eager to exploit his mutant ability.
To provide illustrator Denver Gillen with an extra drawing challenge May opts not to set his story in the usual world of dozing white, middle class children. Instead we are in a parallel world populated only with reindeer, living in houses and sleeping in beds. There’s no real reason for this, but I do rather admire May’s dedication to the world he’s created.
I’ve been trying to wrack my brains for characters who’ve managed to inveigle their way into the pantheon of the North Pole with similar success. The Snowman, as seen dancing with Father Christmas in the animated version of Raymond Briggs’ evergreen classic has probably come closest. And we’ve had a postmodern Rudolph in J. Otto Seibold’s Olive the Other Reindeer. But somehow it is this youthful sidekick, cheerfully dashed out as a festive assignment, who has managed to stand the test of time.
Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer 75th Anniversary Edition is published by Applewood Books