America is bombarded every Christmas with images of Santa Claus. People who may be uncomfortable with the religious connotations of Christmas may be quite comfortable with the image of Santa. They don’t know that they still haven’t escaped the religious significance of jolly Santa, because the Santa image comes from St. Nicholas, a saint of the early church who was born around the year 280.
Legend has it that he gave away all of his inherited wealth and traveled the countryside helping the poor and sick. Dec. 6, the day of his death, became his feast day, and that’s how he and his gift-giving became connected with Christmas. He came to be revered especially in Holland, and it was the Dutch who brought his popularity to New York.
In 1822, Clement Moore, an Episcopal minister, wrote a long Christmas poem about St. Nicholas for his three daughters, titled, “An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas,” now known everywhere by its opening line, “T’was the night before Christmas ….”
In 1939 Robert L. May, an advertiser for the now defunct Montgomery Ward department store chain, wrote a story about Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer. The story reflected May’s childhood, because he had often been taunted as a small, shy child. May tested his story of Rudolph with his 4-year-old daughter Barbara, and she loved it, but the people at Montgomery Ward were hesitant about it at first until Denver Gillen, a man from Ward’s art department, provided a sketch of Rudolph.
Then the story got accepted and became a hit across America. Montgomery Ward gave away 2 1/2 million copies of the printed story in 1939 and another 3 1/2 million copies when the story was reissued in 1946 right after World War II. Robert May received no royalties from his story, but being in debt from medical bills from his wife’s terminal illness (she died about the time May created the Rudolph story), he persuaded Montgomery Ward to give him the copyright in 1947.
The Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer story really took off when Robert May’s brother-in-law, songwriter Johnny Marks, wrote the lyrics and melody for the Rudolph song we are acquainted with today. His musical version was turned down at first by several publishers or producers who didn’t want to meddle with the established Santa legend. But it got recorded by Gene Autry in 1949, and his recording sold 2 million copies that year, going on to become one of the best-selling Christmas songs of all time in America, second only to Irving Berlin’s “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas.”
In 1964, television produced a Christmas special about Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer narrated and sung by Burl Ives. It was an immediate hit and remains a favorite in America to this day. Incidentally, the story known to us from the TV movie departs considerably from May’s original story. There Rudolph lives in an ordinary reindeer village, and Santa discovers him quite by accident when he notices his glowing nose while delivering presents to Rudolph’s house. Because of a fog settling in that threatened to keep Santa from completing his Christmas Eve rounds, Santa asks Rudolph to lead his team. Upon Santa’s return he says to Rudolph, “By you last night’s journey was actually bossed. Without you, I’m certain we’d all have been lost.”
So, even the modern Santa image has roots in a religious Christmas. Our society may be bent on secularizing Christmas, but even Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer can’t get away from a long tenuous connection with the religious origin of this holiday.