Editor’s note: True to his lazy holiday self, the Trivia Geek has skipped out early to celebrate the silly season and has called forth this time-honored Classic Geek from our archives to cover his tracks. (Again.) He’s also taking off December 31, so don’t expect a Geek Trivia on that day either. Look for your next fresh edition of Geek Trivia on Jan. 7, 2009.

Few and far between are the denizens of the industrialized world who can escape the secular trappings of the Christmas season, perhaps best exemplified by Santa Claus and his loyal team of nine enchanted (or, at least, telekinetic) reindeer: Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner, Blitzen, and Rudolph — the latter also sporting the superpower of a hyper-illuminated red nose.

Eight of Santa’s flight-capable caribou can trace their origins to a poem: “A Visit from Saint Nicholas.” Better known by its revised title, “The Night Before Christmas,” the earliest version of this poem first appeared on Dec. 23, 1823 in New York’s Troy Sentinel newspaper.

Contemporary readers of the original poem will recognize six of the eight names: Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, and Cupid. The final two members of Santa’s flying sleigh team began their lyrical lives named not Donner and Blitzen, but Dunder and Blixem, the Dutch words for thunder and lightning, respectively.

As an aside, even though “A Visit from Saint Nicholas” was originally anonymous, two strong cases for the potential author have subsequently cropped up: Henry Livingston and Clement Clarke Moore. Furthermore, the use of Dutch terminology figures significantly into the respective arguments.

Given New York’s rich Dutch immigration history (New Amsterdam, anyone?), the use of Dutch words in the original poem isn’t too surprising. However, because “A Visit from Saint Nicholas” originally ran as an anonymous submission to the Sentinel, editors widely reprinted it — and thus modified it — in various publications almost since the moment it first appeared.

Chief among these modifications was the evolution of Dunder and Blixem to Donder and Blitzen, the German word for lightning. Further down the line, Donder became Donner, the German word for thunder, and thus we have the current nominal lineup of Santa’s reindeer.

Except, of course, for Rudolph, who didn’t appear until copywriter Robert L. May dreamt him up in 1939 — and Santa’s red-nosed team leader almost received a different name.


Get the answer.

What names did copywriter Robert L. May consider for a famous red-nosed reindeer before settling on the now-beloved Rudolph?

May created Rudolph as part of a Christmas marketing campaign for Montgomery Ward department stores. He wanted an alliterative name, and he pondered both Rollo and Reginald as possible names for his commissioned character.

Besides the name nearly being different, Rudolph almost came to life missing his trademark red nose. May’s superiors feared that this attribute would draw unwanted comparisons to drunkenness, as society once considered a flushed red nose a physical symptom of alcoholic inebriation.

Illustrator Denver Gillen was the one to save Rudolph’s red nose. At May’s request, he composed sketches of red-nosed reindeer based on his observations of real caribou at the Lincoln Park Zoo.

Gillen’s renditions were sufficiently charming to assuage May’s bosses, and Montgomery Ward subsequently approved a Rudolph giveaway booklet in time for the 1939 holiday shopping rush. More than two million copies later, the new pop-culture icon was well on his way to changing the holidays forever.

Yet, if Rudolph’s and Robert May’s story ended there, it’s unlikely any modern consumers would have heard of either individual. An already charming tale took a turn toward utterly heartwarming in 1947, when May persuaded Montgomery Ward president Sewell Avery to turn the Rudolph copyright over to the reindeer’s creator.

Because May created Rudolph as a Montgomery Ward employee, the company owned all the Rudolph rights. May, whose wife’s terminal illness had taken both an emotional and financial toll, asked for the Rudolph copyright to get back on his feet, and Avery agreed.

May made the most of Avery’s kindness, parlaying the Rudolph copyright into the hit song by Gene Autry in 1949 and the classic Burl Ives-narrated television special in 1964. Despite a healthy income from the Rudolph license, May spent most of his professional career as a loyal Montgomery Ward employee, retiring as such in 1971.

When Robert L. May passed away in 1976, he left behind not just one of the most beloved characters in modern Christmas lore, but also an uplifting legacy for everyone — especially Trivia Geeks — to enjoy.

The quibble of the week

If you uncover a questionable fact or debatable aspect of this week’s Geek Trivia, just post it in the discussion area. Every week, yours truly will choose the best post from the assembled masses and discuss it in a future edition of Geek Trivia.

As this is a Classic Geek and folks are about to head off on holiday vacation, we bring you–instead of our typical showcase of quibblery — a chance to answer this question:

How would you use technology to improve the holidays?

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