Geek Trivia: And called them by name(s)

What names besides Rudolph did writer Robert L. May consider for his famous red-nosed reindeer?

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 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.

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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.