The Chicago retailer Montgomery Ward, gave away free holiday coloring books each December as a gimmick to get customers to do their Christmas shopping at their department store. In 1939, as the Great Depression was ending, in order to save money, the store decided to publish it’s own coloring book.
Robert L. May was a middle aged copywriter for the store, who was feeling like a failure instead of the talented author he always believed he would be. He impressed his boss with limericks and in return was offered the job of writing the first in-house annual Christmas tale. The title of his storybook was Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer which featured a reindeer with a red nose.
Fortunately for May, the boss was not overly impressed with the Rudolph story and signed over the rights to the Rudolph saga to him. The May family estate continues to receive royalties to this day. May who was barely scraping by on his salary writing copy for the catalog; became a millionaire.
It all began while sitting at his Chicago desk looking out at Lake Michigan, a heavy fog rolled in and blocked the lake view. The fog became the inspiration for the Rudolph story.
“Suddenly I had it! …A bright red nose! A bright red nose that would shine through the fog like a spotlight.” The first year of publication, Montgomery Ward distributed 2.4 million pamphlets.
May’s brother-in-law, John Marks turned the story into a song in 1949, first recorded by Gene Autry and sung by numerous recording artists, eventually attaining enormous success.
The lyrics that introduce us to Rudolph explain that he,
“Had a very shiny nose
And if you ever saw it
You would even say it glows.”
The audience realizes that Rudolph is different than the other reindeer, with no indication if the difference is good, bad or irrelevant.
“All of the other reindeer
Used to laugh and call him names.”
Uh oh, the other reindeer considered his red nose to be a negative and mocked and abused him by calling him names.
“ They never let poor Rudolph
Join in any reindeer games.”
This is going from bad to worse. They ostracized him for being different.
“Then one foggy Christmas Eve
Santa came to say
‘Rudolph, with your nose so bright
Won’t you guide my sleigh tonight?’”
Things are quickly changing. Rudolph is now the leader, the one who can with his natural ability, guide all the others on their mission.
“Then how the reindeer loved him”
What? How did it go from bullying to love so quickly? His difference is now a positive unique trait that everyone loves.
“As they shouted out in glee
‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
You’ll go down in history.’”
Wow! This talent is now considered historical.
What happened in this carol is just another example of a perceived negative trait hiding a positive quality; a theme often repeated in the popular culture of the 1930’s and 40’s.
Santa recognized that Rudolph had an asset that was unique and was needed to succeed in the journey, even when the others did not see it and even mocked it.
The wizard in the Wizard of Oz recognized the incredible brain of the Scarecrow, the achingly loving heart of the Tin Man, and the heroic bravery of the Cowardly Lion, when everyone else sneered at their elusive capabilities.
In the Disney classic “Dumbo”, the large elephant ears were ridiculed until the baby elephant became the star of the circus when he flew through the air on winged ears.
Maybe we can learn a positive lesson this holiday season from Santa and the Wizard of Oz. What can each individual do to help make a community-wide difference?
What special quality or unique skill does the individual possess to make a difference. In Western society, the concept of dharma is still somewhat foreign. In Eastern mindsets, specifically in Hinduism, dharma is the universal moral force of the universe and it also refers to the individuals fulfillment of what they were born to do. In Judaism the belief is that each individual is a soul that comes to Earth with a Tikun Olam, or a unique contribution to fix the world. Following this mindset, even the most physically or mentally challenged individuals have something to contribute towards fixing the world.
In more recent pop culture, we see time and again how a perceived negative can become a positive. When Heinz ketchup was mocked by its competitors as too difficult to pour out of the bottle, the company advertised it as “too thick to win a ketchup race”, turning it into a positive. Avis was ridiculed for being number 2 to Hertz Rent a Car, so it touted the positive mantra of “we try harder”. The diminutive Volkswagen Beetle could not compete in the United States with the larger Detroit muscle cars, so it convinced many consumers to “think small”.
Maybe the Rudolph saga is more about resiliency than ridicule. This holiday season can be an opportune time for parents to hug their young children when their team loses the soccer match, or to have the resiliency to persevere after a long exhausting week, and to have the self-confidence to turn a negative into a positive.
Wishing everyone a happy and merry holiday season!
About the Author: Jake Tewel holds a Masters Degree from YU. He has been a wine seller, caterer and a million miler for the past 15 years. Jake is a best friend, great neighbor, your go to travel person, father, grandfather and loving husband. He is now focusing his efforts on heart healthy nutrition, exercise and travel.