Is Rudolph Real?

It’s story time, right before bedtime, and my wife and my son and I are all reclining on our bed. We’ve just finished up “One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish” by Dr. Seuss, so there’s no reason to expect the question my son decides to drop on me. But he sits up, looks at his mother, and asks “Is Rudolph really real?”

Man, what. You’re five. Stop asking questions like that.

My wife hems and haws for a second. Normally she’s great at questions like this, but she looks like she’s been caught off guard. So I step in. “He’s every bit as real as Santa,” I tell him. Which is, strictly speaking, true. My son grins, and my wife smiles at me, and he goes back to being a contented and happy five-year-old.

But it made me wonder:  is there a “historical” Rudolph?

Well, according to Robert May Tells How Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer, Came Into Being, there actually was. Sort of. The article was written for the December 22, 1975 issue of The Gettysburg Times, and is Mr. May’s story about how he ended up writing the poem. In it, he says:

“That night, I wondered about what kind of animal it should be. Christmas. Santa. Reindeer? Of course: It must be a reindeer – Barbara, my four-year-old daughter, loved the deer down at the zoo.”

The inspiration for Rudolph wasn’t a single, specific reindeer, it seems. He was inspired by the idea of a reindeer, and by a four-year-old girl’s affection for the animals. And by the tradtional American conception of Santa Claus, of course. But why the red nose? Well, the same article says this in the next few paragraphs:

“But what could a little reindeer teach children?

Suppose he were an underdog – a loser, yet triumphant in the end. But what kind of underdog?

Certainly a reindeer’s dream would be to pull Santa’s sleigh.

Outside, the fog swirled in from Lake Michigan, dimming the street lights. Light. Something to help Santa find his way on a night like this.

Suddenly, I had it! A nose! A bright red nose that would shine thrugh fog like a floodlight.”

Based on a story published in the St. Petersburg Times on December 19, 1948, some of the story may also have been a way for Mr. May to deali with his wife’s terminal cancer. She died while he was working on the poem, and he would read the drafts to Barbara:

“She was my guinea pig,” May recalled. “I tried the words on her for size.”

The creation of Rudolph, then, was a bittersweet thing. But as Barbara said in an article published after her father’s death:

“He felt that Rudolph was something like him as a little boy, sort of scrawny and not quite accepted by the other kids on the block…. But he knew that a person had to keep going and that, somehow, perseverance and tolerance would win out.”

Can you think of a better message for Christmas, or for life in general?

(Incidentally, the song also led to the accidental creation of another new reindeer named Olive. Apparently, the line “all of the other reindeer” can be misheard as “Olive the other reindeer”…)

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