If you’ve always assumed that Christmas carols are merely twee expressions of Christian joy, think again.
First, an astonishing proportion of the creators of these carols were Jewish (not just Irving Berlin). And one of the most famous of these lighthearted jingles has a complex and sad story behind it.
On Interfaithfamily.com, Nate Bloom offers an exposé of the Christmas hit "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer."
In early 1939, a Jewish man by the name of Robert May was working for the Montgomery Ward retail company as a low-level advertising copyeditor. The company was looking to boost holiday shopping for upcoming season, so May was asked to write a cute holiday ditty that they could hand out as a pamphlet to shoppers. Montgomery Ward was looking for a “cheery Christmas story,” according to Bloom, and May’s boss suggested using an animal as the focus.
At the time, May’s life was falling apart. His wife was dying of cancer, and he was forced to spend his meager paycheck on her treatments. They also had a 5-year-old daughter named Barbara whom May was struggling to care for. So when he was given this assignment, his daughter helped. He decided to use a deer, because that was her favorite animal, and she OK’d the name Rudolph. When Denver Gillen signed on to do art for the project, the three of them trekked down to the zoo so Gillen could sketch an accurate image of a deer.
May’s wife died in the summer of 1939, and May threw himself into the Rudolph project, finally finishing the poem. The result was an instant success, selling all 2.4 million pamphlets printed and leaving shoppers demanding more copies in the following years. However, due to paper shortages during the war, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” was only reprinted again in 1946. Still, 3.6 million copies were sold that year, and the owner of the Montgomery Ward company gave full copyrights to the May family.
Bloom says the feel-good song reflected May’s insecurities. “May wrote in 1963 that he related to the ugly duckling tale [of Rudolph] because he was small and shy throughout childhood and ‘knew what it was like to be the underdog,’” Bloom notes.
Bloom eventually remarried, and the whole family lived off the royalties from "Rudolph" for a few years. In 1958, he went back to work at Montgomery Ward.
Today, the holiday song market isn’t a one-way street. This year, the conductor of the West Point Jewish Chapel Cadet Choir, which played at the White House Chanukah party, was none other than Cadet Evan Szablowski, a 20-year old Christian student.