Rudolph & Frosty: The Beginning

You grew up, learning and loving the stories children are told at Christmastime, stories that have become a part of our cultural consciousness. And, now, your children are falling in love with the same stories. But you’re at the age – finally – that when you hear the story of Rudolph or Frosty, for the zillionth time, you’re asking yourself, “Where did this stuff come from?”

The childrens’ Christmas stories we hear every year seem to have been around forever, but some of them are actually fairly recent inventions, in the timeline of Christmas history.

“Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer” was, originally, purely a marketing tool. The Montgomery Ward chain of department stores used to buy coloring books, each year, and give them away to children, as a way of drawing parents to their stores. But in 1939, the chain decided that creating their own in-house books would save money, so a young Montgomery Ward copywriter, Robert L. May, was assigned the task of creating their new giveaway booklet for kids.

May decided on a Christmas-themed version of the old ugly-duckling story, about a misfit who grows up, ridiculed for his deformity – in this case, a bright red reindeer nose – but who ultimately proves to be a valued and helpful member of the community. May wrote the story in verse, and tested it on his own four-year-old daughter. He had a problem coming up with his hero’s name, however-he tried Rollo and Reginald, before finally settling on Rudolph.

The character was an instant hit with Montgomery Ward’s customers and their children. But, it wasn’t until 1949, when May’s brother-in-law, songwriter Johnny Marks, developed the song we know today, that the popularity of Rudolph became universal. Gene Autry recorded it, and it’s been the second-best-selling Christmas song (after “White Christmas”) ever since.

A year later, in 1950, Jack Rollins and Steve Nelson wrote the song, “Frosty The Snowman”, after witnessing the enormous success of the Rudolph song. Up until this time, Christmas marketing had been largely directed at children through their parents, the holders of the purse-strings.

When “Rudolph” hit big, Rollins and Nelson decided to jump on the direct-to-kids bandwagon. They sent their song about the snowman with the magic hat to Gene Autry, who likewise figured a second shot at a Christmas hit-for-kids was worth a try. Frosty wasn’t exactly the hero that Rudolph was, at least in the original song; he was just a snowman who liked playing with children, until it was time for him to leave or melt – though the subsequent animated adaptations of his story gave him more heroic dimensions. But Rollins and Nelson had a Christmas hit, and Gene Autry struck gold for a second time in as many years.

It may burst your holiday bubble to learn that your favorite childhood Christmas legends were invented for purely financial reasons, but look at it this way – in the middle of December, when you’re busy with shopping lists and holiday travel plans, what better distraction is there for your kids, than the animated versions of the Rudolph and Frosty stories, on TV? Those marketers and songwriters knew what they were doing.

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