Hrodulf Readnosa Hrandeor

In which the origins of a beloved Christmas song are explored.

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.

Covers of the original 1939 Montgomery Ward colouring book.

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.

From an Anglo-Saxon scroll found in the ruined Abbey of St Brucie le Fey.

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

This 14th century manuscript suggests that the story of Rudolph may have been known in earlier times.

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

This detail from a French manuscript may well answer the age-old question: Do reindeer really know how to fly?

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.

The Flight of La Befana

Tonight, as she has done for the past thousand years – or perhaps two thousand if legend is to be believed, an old lady will wander through the streets, alleyways and roads of Italy looking for a special child.  Some say she is seeking the Christ Child, others that it is her own lost child she seeks and still others say it is all children because for one night a year they have been left in her care.  Her head swathed in an old scarf to protect her from the cold, dressed in a tattered house dress, wearing a pair of scuffed boots – though sometimes she wears sandals or even goes barefoot – and using a broom as support but more often as transportation she will go from house to house.

At each house where she stops she leaves small presents in the stockings that have been left out by the children of the family.  If she finds that the child has been bad there may be a lump of coal or an onion but more often she rewards children for the times they were good with sweets, oranges, toys and games.  And because she comes down the chimney and is a good housekeeper she sweeps away the soot so no trace of her entry can be found.  Then, if thoughtful children have left one behind, she may partake of a glass of local wine or even a biscotti  to warm her old bones and give her strength to continue her journey on to the next house.  It is also known that if she is spied upon she will take her broom stick to the offenders and never visit them again.

Over the past few years I have written about the various versions of the story of La Befana and it seems each year I find another one including this rather lovely variation on her tale at My Merry Christmas.  It is a tradition I have grown to love and cherish as part of my Christmas  and once again this year she graced the tree and has been keeping an eye on things from the hutch until the 12th day of Christmastide comes to an end and things are put away until next year.

Though her tale is now steeped in Christian mythology it is likely that her origins – as with much in Christianity – are pagan.   She may be related to Strenua the Sabine goddess of strength and endurance whose feast came at the beginning of the New Year and included the exchange of gifts.  This festivity was considered riotous and licentious by early Christians but as Thomas Macaulay remarked  “Christianity conquered paganism, but paganism infected Christianity.”  In some northern Italian cultures she represents the Old Year and a puppet of an old lady is burned on a larger bonfire in a public square (Fellini captured that rite in his Amacord) – a pagan tradition that can be found in many Celtic cultures.

Though she is celebrated throughout Italy – and in many Italian communities worldwide – the town of Urbania in Pesaro is closely associated with La Befana.  From January 2 until the 6th the town celebrates La Festa Nationale della Befana with food, fairs, rides, games, parades and more Befane that you can shake a broom at.

These are a few sketches of the street decorations designed by Loris Grisi for this year’s festa – stockings, sacks of goodies, brooms, the only thing missing is the old lady herself.  But as this little sideshow proves there is no lack of guests-of-honour at this celebration.


Viene, viene la Befana
Vien dai monti a notte fonda
Come è stanca! la circonda
Neve e gelo e tramontana!
Viene, viene la Befana

Here comes, here comes the Befana
She comes from the mountains in the deep of the night
Look how tired she is! All wrapped up
In snow and frost and the north wind!
Here comes, here comes the Befana!

Giovanni  Pascoli

And hopefully on her journey tonight she has brought happiness and good things to all my dear friends in Italy.  Viva la Befana Viva!

05 January – 1759 – George Washington married Martha Dandridge Custis

A Hidden Meaning – I

This has been around the Internet for some time now but is an interesting take on a traditional Christmas Song. Though there has been some debate on how true it is, given that often religions hid messages in code it is entirely possible.

From 1558 until 1829, Roman Catholics in England were not permitted to practice their faith openly. Someone during that era wrote this carol as a catechism song for young Catholics.

It has two levels of meaning: the surface meaning plus a hidden meaning known only to members of their church. Each element in the carol has a code word for a religious reality which the children could remember.

The True Love was the love of God the Father for his people.

The partridge in a pear tree was Jesus Christ.

Two turtle doves were the Old and New Testaments.

Three French hens stood for faith, hope and love.

The four calling birds were the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke
and John.

The five golden rings recalled the Torah or Law, the first five books of the Old Testament.

The six geese a-laying stood for the six days of creation.

Seven swans a-swimming represented the sevenfold gifts of the Holy Spirit: Prophesy, Serving, Teaching, Exhortation, Contribution, Leadership, and Mercy.

The eight maids a-milking were the eight beatitudes.

Nine ladies dancing were the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit: Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness, Faithfulness, Gentleness, and Self Control.

The ten lords a-leaping were the Ten Commandments.

The eleven pipers piping stood for the eleven faithful disciples.

The twelve drummers drumming symbolized the twelve points of belief in the Apostles’ Creed.

May thanks to Her Excellency Anne Leahy for passing this on.

18 decembre – San Malachia O’Morgair (Maelmhaedhoc O’Morgair)