Over the years I’ve had so much fun looking up not only the etymology of holiday words, but also the history behind some of our common traditions. So now that we’re in Advent, I thought I’d do a series of recollections and look at those posts from years past…because I don’t know about you, but I often need a refresher!
Let’s start out with a look at the stories (true and…not) behind two Christmas songs.
I don’t know about you, but I always enjoy learning about the true story behind things like songs, poems, and stories…much like the one that goes along with the carol “Good King Wenceslas.”
This song is based on the famous life of a Bohemian duke, Wenceslaus I (known in Czech as Svatý Václav). Wenceslaus was renowned for his piety and Christian devotion, and nothing could stop him from doing good…even terrible weather. The event memorialized in the song took place on December 26, the feast day of St. Stephen, a day traditionally reserved for delivering alms to the poor. Wenceslaus was so determined to take these alms to his people that he trekked out in the middle of a blizzard to accomplish it. The song is from the perspective of one of his servants, who thought at one point during the journey that he’d surely die from the cold; the snow was so thick he couldn’t see what was ahead of him. But he made his way by literally following in the footsteps of the duke, which led him unerringly to the door of the people he was helping.
Wenceslaus lived from 907-935 and is famous for his midnight vigils and dedication to protecting and providing for his people, especially the poor. Upon his death, many biographies were written about him, and he was soon named a saint. So great was his popularity that the Holy Roman Emporer Otto even posthumously conferred on him the title of “king.” How fascinating is that? He has been held up for centuries as what a true, noble leader should be.
Wenceslaus has remained a popular figure in both Bohemia and England for centuries, resulting in the poem and Christmas carol we all know, written in 1853 by John Mason Neale. The variation in the spelling of his name has happened in the time since the song was written; it originally had that ‘u’ in there.
Because my kids asked me after I went through the original St. Nicholas story with them, when Rudolph came about, and I had no clue.
As it turns out, our beloved reindeer was an invention of a writer named Robert L. May, who was hired by the Montgomery Ward company to create an original piece of work for their annual children’s coloring book. May devised Rudolph in 1939…to some opposition. The publishers didn’t like the red nose idea. Red noses were associated with drunkards, which certainly wasn’t the image they wanted to portray. But when May had his illustrator friend create a cutesy deer character (they decided actual reindeer weren’t cute enough so went with a more familiar-to-Americans white-tailed variety) with a beaming red nose, the powers-that-be relented–and the story took off to amazing success. The original poem was written in the meter of “The Night Before Christmas.”
The song we all know and love was written a decade later, by the author’s brother-in-law. It remained the all-time best selling album in the country until the 80s!
The stop-motion animation version that I grew up thinking was the only Rudolph story worth watching, LOL, came about in 1964. Though very popular, this movie apparently doesn’t stick very accurately to the original poem. Which now makes me want to look up the original and see what’s been changed!
So there we have it. Our history of Rudolph.