While reindeer seem to be a pretty obvious animal to help Santa on his Christmas travels, they didn’t become part of the Jolly St Nick story until the 19th century. In 1821, a New York writer named William Gilley published a children’s booklet where Santa and reindeer were first mentioned together: “Old Santeclaus with much delight, his reindeer drives this frosty night.”
A year later, Clement Clarke Moore anonymously published his poem “A Visit from St Nicholas,” otherwise known as “The Night Before Christmas,” co-opting the idea and popularised it as part of Christmas lore.
In the 20th century, it was department stores Macy’s Montgomery Ward that pushed the reindeer and Christmas narrative even further. Macy’s put on what may be the first Christmas display featuring Santa, a sleigh and real reindeer in 1926.
Thirteen years later, the store distributed a colouring book featuring a cute little reindeer with a nose “red as a beet..twice as bright.” The author was an ad man named Robert L May who, after writing the initial draft of the story, perfect it with the help of his four year old daughter. In the first year after its creation, around 2.4 million copies of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer were sold.
After the Wold War II, demand for the story skyrocketed, receiving its biggest boost when May’s brother-in-law, radio producer Johnny Marks, created a modified musical version of the story.
The first version of this song was sung by Harry Brannon in 1948, but was made popular by Gene Autry’s 1949 version.
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