Rudolph’s dad was Donner in the film adaptation of Robert L. May’s story Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. May hadn’t originally given the parents’ names. However, it was May who renamed Donner, formally Dunder, in the 1823 poem ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas that first features the eight reindeer.
Every Christmas, parents across America shuffle into stuffy gymnasiums and auditoriums and take a seat in bleachers and folding chairs designed to keep chiropractors in business. There, these adults sit to watch their little darlings open their mouths wide and bellow “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” or worse, blast it out of a recorder. They may never even wonder; who came up with Rudolph and his family?
The story of Rudolph has been around since 1939. It rocketed to fame in 1964 after being released as a TV Christmas Special. While aspects of the movie version have not aged well, the tale’s heart speaks to anyone who was ever bullied, felt beaten down, or been an outsider. They are emotions the story’s author was well acquainted with. Today, it’s hard to say whose story is more interesting: Rudolph’s or his creator’s?
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Robert L. May & The Creation of Rudolph
Rudolph began as a tale written by Robert L. May in 1939 at his boss at Montgomery Ward’s request. This version features a much nicer Santa than featured in the film made decades later. However, while the original mentions Rudolph having parents, they are not given names. Donner wasn’t attributed as Rudolph’s father until the movie was released.
Robert L. May’s Version of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
Robert L. May’s version of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer opens with all the young reindeer playing games. That is, but for poor Rudolph, who wasn’t allowed to join in. Instead, he was teased and tormented due to his red, shiny nose. He was lonely but tried to be good, dreaming of helping pull Santa’s sleigh one day.
Fog rolled in one fateful Christmas Eve, and while Santa and his reindeer set off, the going was slow. Santa, slipping and sliding as he slowly worked, fortuitously stumbled into Rudolph’s bedroom to leave a gift when he spotted the lad’s nose. It was then Santa got the idea to have Rudolph pull the sleigh.
(The entire original draft can be read at the bottom of NPR’s article on the author.)
May was not in a good place at the time of writing the story. The Great Depression had not fully waned, and he was on the cusp of 35 and eking out a living writing copy for Montgomery Ward’s catalogs. “Here I was, heavily in debt,” wrote May. “Instead of writing the great American novel, as I’d once hoped, I was describing men’s white shirts.”
But the company wanted to release a new Christmas coloring booklet that year, so his manager passed the task on to May. May was not feeling the Christmas spirit due to his wife suffering at home from cancer. But with doctor bills piling up, he felt obliged to do the job. With his young daughter going through a deer phase, he settled on the idea of creating a story focused on a reindeer.
Rudolf’s Dad Was Originally Named Dunder, Not Donner
Robert L. May didn’t have to start from scratch when he began brainstorming his reindeer tale. Back in December 1923, a poem had been published, ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas. In the poem, eight named reindeer pull Santa’s sleigh.
May is faithful to the majority of the original names, but he changes Dunder (or Donder) to Donner. The original name is a poor one for a fast reindeer in English. But in Dutch, Dunder and Blixem make sense: thunder and lightning. However, Blixem had already evolved in English to Blitzen by the start of the 20th century, and Dunder was more often than not showing up in reprints as Donder.
However, there was one reindeer who didn’t have a name: the star of his tale.
Rudolf’s Name Could Have Been Rollo or Reginald
It’s hard to imagine, but Rudolf’s name could have been Rollo or Reginald. May wanted his main character to begin with “R” so it would roll off the tongue. Thus, he drew up a list of names starting with R. Thankfully, he tossed out Rollo for being “too happy” and Reginald for being “too sophisticated.”
Rudolf Was Inspired by The Ugly Duckling
Given May’s glum mood, he was not invested in a perky and happy main character. Instead, May had always felt a kinship with underdogs and outsiders due to growing up as a boy who was considered small for his age. In addition, he drew inspiration for his story from tales such as Hans Christian Andersen’s tale of The Ugly Duckling.
Rudolf’s Parents Don’t Have Names in The Original Story
In the original Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer, the young deer has parents, but they are not named. However, May does tell us that “he was always good / Obeying his parents, as good reindeer should!”
It wasn’t until the movie was released in 1965 that Donner and Mrs. Donner were named as Rudolf’s parents. In the movie version, Rudolf also acquires a friend named Hermey the Elf, who longs to become a dentist, and a girlfriend, Clarice, whose father is Comet.
The Parents in The Rudolph Film Are Reflections of the Times
Rudolph’s parents in the film version truly reflect the times, for better or worse. Mrs. Donner is a bit of a Leave It to Beaver stereotype. Donner is a macho type who, rather than telling Santa to shove it, makes his son wear a prosthetic over his nose.
Clarice’s father, Comet, is a macho bully of a coach who utters phrases like, “no doe of mine.”
But the truly deplorable behavior comes from “Jolly ol’ St. Nick.”
Bad Santa in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
Alas, Santa practically takes on a villainous role at the start of the Rudolf film. He is utterly appalled at Rudolf’s nose and he seems to blame the parents. Not exactly the behavior one expects from Good St. Nick. Later, when Rudolf’s prosthetic pops off, displaying his naturally bright light, Santa goes ballistic. In the most un-jolly way, he bellows that Donner should be “ashamed of himself.”
By 1964, it was known that parents had limited influence (albeit genetic input) on their child’s appearance and sex. The days of kings blaming women for producing daughters were well and truly over, as they now knew it was the sperm that dictated the sex. Thus, it is perplexing that Santa would behave in such a manner, even in the ’60s.
Thankfully, Santa is more like the jolly man-children dream about on Christmas Eve in the original story.
Did Rudolph’s Creator Get a Happy Ending?
Robert L. May’s life after writing Rudolph the Red-Nose Reindeer was full of horrible lows, sprinkled with some satisfying moments. He never went on to write the great American novel. On a much more tragic note, May’s wife died as his book rose to fame; Montgomery Wardreleased 2 million copies that year. Sadly, his salary was not enough to pay off the medical bills that remained after she’d gone.
However, life started to be kinder to May after those gut punches. First, Montgomery Ward returned the tales to May. Then, his well-connected brother-in-law turned the story into a song that caught Gene Autry’s eye. The cowboy made it a hit, selling over 25 million copies. All of which got May out of debt. The song led to the film, and after that, May really didn’t have to stress about money.
Thus, like Rudolf, May didn’t have an easy life, but at least it became gentler for the author by the end.
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It’s hard to say if Rudolf’s creator ever considered who, exactly, Rudolph’s parents were. However, tales evolve as they age, just as May carried on the story of the eight reindeer first featured in the poem ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas. Thus, Donner is now Rudolf’s dad. But let’s all agree the film version’s Santa could be improved by taking a leaf out of May’s original tale.