Editor’s note: The Trivia Geek is scrambling to finish his traditional last-minute holiday shopping, so we’ve pulled this Classic Geek from our archives, which originally ran Dec. 22, 2004. And because the Geek is also a lazy slacker, we won’t be running any Geek Trivia on Dec. 28, 2005. However, he’s made a New Year’s resolution to get his act together and has promised fresh Geek Trivia on Jan. 4, 2006. Happy holidays!

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.


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

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.

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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 of the article.
Every week, yours truly will choose the best post from the assembled masses and
discuss it in the next edition of Geek Trivia. (To see the original quibble from this article, see Listing A.)

This week’s quibble comes once again from the super-popular and mildly controversial November 30 edition of Geek Trivia, “The cold hard truth.” TechRepublic member Fiberdriver busted me on my tense-based distinctions between breeds of celestial debris.

“For the most part, you did okay with correct terminology in the article. There are a few areas of debatable usage. For example, did a meteorite kill the dog, or did a meteor kill the dog?

“However, there are some blatant errors. On page 1 in the second paragraph, ‘documented meteorite landings’ should be ‘documented meteor landings.’ (It is not a meteorite until it lands. A ‘landed meteorite’ is redundant.)

“In the next paragraph, the first sentence should read, ‘a series of meteors hit.’ And in the fourth paragraph, it was a ‘Nakhla meteor storm.’

“On page 2 in the third paragraph, ‘meteorites’ do not strike the atmosphere. ‘Meteoroids‘ strike the atmosphere.”

Okay, this is the last time I subject my editor to a meteor shower of corrections. Thanks for the laundry list of grammatical offenses, dear reader, and keep those quibbles coming.

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The Trivia Geek, also known as Jay Garmon, is a former advertising copywriter and Web developer who’s duped TechRepublic into underwriting his affinity for movies, sci-fi, comic books, technology, and all things geekish or subcultural.