Most of us have grown up with the Christmas story of Rudolph, the little reindeer with the red nose who came into his own one foggy Christmas Eve. Certainly I recall it as a favourite song on the radio as sung by Gene Autry – until the 1980s it was the second highest selling record of all time. And I have a memory of a visit to Simpson’s Toyland during the Holiday season which involved approaching a frosty scene with a mechanical Rudolph that you talked to – though for the life of me I don’t recall or even imagine what either I or Rudolph would have said or had to say to each other. And of course starting in 1964 there was the stop-action TV special that has been shown annually every since which makes it the longest running annual programme on television.
Common knowledge credits the creation of Rudolph’s story to Robert Lewis May in 1939 when he was on commission to write a Christmas story for Montgomery Ward, the big Chicago department store. Every Christmas the store bought and gave away colouring books when children visited Santa; in an effort to save money it was decided that the store would have its own book created. That simple cost saving measure gave birth to an entire industry all based on a little reindeer’s red shiny nose.
It is said that May drew on his own experiences as a shy child who was a bit of a misfit; however recent research has revealed that, as early as Anglo-Saxon times, there may of been versions of the story of a light-gifted reindeer who led a pilgrimage from the North. Recent discoveries of a deer figure with a “very shiny nose” in the illuminations and marginalia of manuscripts from the Middle-Ages have led to further research into the origins of the legend.
Inn an earlier posting there was an example of the Legend of Rudolph as celebrated in Gregorian chant by Monks at the Abbey of St Ives in Burlbörg, Sweden in the 12th century. There is a linguistic and cultural link between what are now called the Scandinavian countries and Great Britain of the Anglo-Saxon period. Therefore it is not surprising that currently the earliest reference found to a shiny-nosed reindeer is a poem in Anglo-Saxon meter. Further research might well reveal that the chant and the poem link back to an earlier, as yet undiscovered, Norse legend.
The discovery of this poem by Philip Craig Chapman-Bell coincides with the unearthing of a scroll at the ruined Abbey of St Brucie le Fey in what was once the sub-kingdom of Magonsæte of the greater Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia. Unfortunately most of the document had deteriorated to a degree that only the rather endearing image of a jolly little reindeer (see above left) with “goodly nose-cartilage (that) glittered and glowed”. Perhaps it was meant as an illustration of the poem that Chapman-Bell discovered.
Incipit gestis Rudolphi rangifer tarandus
Hwæt, Hrodulf readnosa hrandeor —
Næfde þæt nieten unsciende næsðyrlas!
Glitenode and gladode godlice nosgrisele.
Ða hofberendas mid huscwordum hine gehefigodon;
Nolden þa geneatas Hrodulf næftig
To gomene hraniscum geador ætsomne.
Þa in Cristesmæsseæfne stormigum clommum,
Halga Claus þæt gemunde to him maðelode:
“Neahfreond nihteage nosubeorhtende!
Min hroden hrædwæn gelæd ðu, Hrodulf!”
Ða gelufodon hira laddeor þa lyftflogan —
Wæs glædnes and gliwdream; hornede sum gegieddode
“Hwæt, Hrodulf readnosa hrandeor,
Brad springð þin blæd: breme eart þu!”
Chapman-Bell very thoughtfully translated the text and it is remarkable how closely it mirrors May’s wonderful story. I was intrigued by the use of “Explicit” at the end of the poem and discovered that it meant “unrolled” or “unfurled” and was used as an indication that a scroll had come to an end.
Here begins the deeds of Rudolph, Tundra-Wanderer
Lo, Hrodulf the red-nosed reindeer —
That beast didn’t have unshiny nostrils!
The goodly nose-cartilage glittered and glowed.
The hoof-bearers taunted him with proud words;
The comrades wouldn’t allow wretched Hrodulf
To join the reindeer games.
Then, on Christmas Eve bound in storms
Santa Claus remembered that, spoke formally to him:
“Dear night-sighted friend, nose-bright one!
You, Hrodulf, shall lead my adorned rapid-wagon!”
Then the sky-flyers praised their lead-deer —
There was gladness and music; one of the horned ones sang
“Lo, Hrodulf the red-nosed reindeer,
Your fame spreads broadly, you are renowned!”
Translation by Philip Craig Chapman-Bell
Many thanks to Cathy for introducing me to this piece of Christmas ephemera and to Philip Craig Chapman-Bell who created the original poem – well not really the original original but the Anglo-Saxon version. Everything else stems from my obviously bored and addled brain.
On this day in 1932: Radio City Music Hall, “Showplace of the Nation”, opens in New York City.