top of page

The Tales of the Christmas Tunes

By: Christina Griffin

Well, I have a question: Do you recall the most famous reindeer of all? Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer, has had a lasting impact on pop culture. However, did you know that the little red-nosed reindeer wasn’t always part of Santa’s lineup? The song "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" didn’t start at the north pole but in a slightly unexpected place: a shopping mall. It was the 1930s, and Robert L. May was working as an ad man at Montgomery Ward, an old retail store. The store had been buying coloring books and selling them, but then figured it was cheaper to just create their own. So, May was chosen to write the little booklet to give to children. He had always felt a bit like an outcast and thought up the story of a reindeer being accepted after guiding Santa's sleigh. The booklet was made up of couplets and had some differences from the story you may know. The booklet sold 2 million copies, but strangely, ten years later, Robert May was given the rights to his story. He decided to ask his brother-in-law, who was an emerging songwriter, to write a song about our deer little friend (ha, punny). At first, no singer would take it, but then the crooning cowboy Gene Autry did. The song became extremely popular, especially after the iconic stop-motion movie was created, and the red-nosed reindeer really did go down in history.

The Original Booklet Written by Robert L. May

Let's continue with the Christmas song to end all Christmas songs. Mariah Carey's "All I Want for Christmas Is You". But just how did this all-time hit become the reason for the season? Carey was working with one of her collaborators, Walter Afanasieff, on writing Christmas songs for her holiday album. They first started with slow ballad songs but then decided to go in a different direction—an old rock and roll type of Christmas song—which Mariah Carey actually wanted to do. They took inspiration from "A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector," a classic record that employs Spector’s trademark "Wall of Sound" technique used on famous R&B songs of the sixties. When Mariah started improvising a melody, there was originally pushback, with Afanasieff wondering if it would work, as he believed it sounded too much like a scale. They continued working back and forth and finished the lyrics by the summer. Interestingly, there isn’t a live band playing on the record; Afansteiff took over and did all the tracks digitally on a keyboard, except for the legendary vocals. To record those, Mariah Carey had decorated the studio with Christmas decorations to get in the right mindset, which was important considering it was summer outside. "All I Want for Christmas Is You" has gone on to become the eleventh best-selling single of all time and is the most downloaded Christmas song.

Mariah Carey in the Nineties

Another song, while not quite a classic, is very memorable. "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer" has been very popular, spawning books and merchandise. It’s because of a piece of merchandise—a singing reindeer—that I first heard this song (weirdly during the summertime). Randy Brooks was tired of country songs that made people care about a character only to kill them off in the final verse. Brooks decided to subvert this by just killing a character (Grandma) immediately. In the 1970s, he was touring as the supporting act for the group Elmo & Patsy when they heard him play the song. They immediately asked Brooks if they could record a version and started selling copies of it at their shows. The song was played on a San Francisco radio station, and it exploded. People called into the stations, stating a wide range of opinions, mostly negative. Regardless, the other stations started asking for copies, and Elmo and Patsy had trouble printing them quickly enough. The song became very popular, and Randy Brooks is glad that it's become such an integral part of people’s holidays, and the fact that it’s a cash cow never hurts.

One of the Many Creations Inspired by the Song

These songs have been around forever and often just slip into the back of your mind. So while you may never have wondered if Rudolph was always around or what season Mariah Carey recorded her most famous song, you can now think about it every time you’re forced to listen to these pieces, and maybe start to wonder about the lyrics to other songs.

Image Citations:

1. Rauner Special Collections Library/Dartmouth College
3. Warner Home Video

bottom of page