The History of Christmas Characters

This holiday season, teach your kids the history of Christmas characters like the beloved Rudolph, Frosty the Snowman and Santa Claus.

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Our Christmas friends reappear every season. They’re on TV and greeting cards, in parades and shopping malls, in picture windows and on front lawns. But what is the history of Christmas characters like Rudolph, Frosty and the Jolly Ol’ Elf? Where do they come from and why? Their origins involve a stocking-full of advertising-savvy, a sack stuffed with money and a surprisingly large number of household names. (And for parents who are curious about why parents tell kids about these magical holiday characters, read up on this post all about the myths we tell our kids).

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Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

Curious about the origin of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer? Rudolph was originally the Christmas mascot of Montgomery Ward department stores. In 1939, advertising copywriter Robert L. May created the story – a twist on Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytale The Ugly Duckling – for the company’s annual Christmas coloring book promo.

Ward allowed May to keep the Rudolph copyright and in 1948, a nine-minute cartoon was shown in theaters. The next year, May’s brother-in-law and prolific Christmas songwriter Johnny Marks (“Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”) wrote lyrics and a melody based on the Rudolph story. “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” sold some 2 million copies.

Rankin/Bass Productions produced the iconic stop-motion animated special, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, premiering on NBC Sunday, Dec. 6, 1964. Besides the title tune, Marks penned a number of its songs, including “Holly Jolly Christmas” and “Silver and Gold” – both sung by the special’s Sam the Snowman narrator, voiced by Burl Ives.

Rudolph’s TV success spawned a flurry of Rankin/Bass holiday specials using stop-motion animation and typically featuring entertainment personalities in the twilight of their careers. The red-nosed hero got plenty of sequels, too, returning in Rudolph’s Shiny New Year (1976) and Rudolph and Frosty’s Christmas in July (1979).

Frosty the Snowman

Here’s the history of Frosty the Snowman: Frosty was introduced in the 1950 song “Frosty the Snowman,” written by Walter “Jack” Rollins and Steve Nelson as a follow-up to “Peter Cottontail,” their successful Easter tune recorded earlier that year. The tune promptly sold more than a million copies. While considered a Christmas classic, it includes no specific reference to the holiday.

In 1954, United Productions of America (UPA) produced a three-minute Frosty cartoon with a different version of the song. Frosty hit prime time in 1969 when Rankin/Bass premiered its cel-animated special Frosty the Snowman, narrated by hoarse-voiced legend Jimmy Durante. It was followed by Frosty’s Winter Wonderland (1976) and Rudolph and Frosty’s Christmas in July (1979). Comedian Jackie Vernon provided Frosty’s voice in all three.

Santa Claus

The origins of Santa Claus reach to the fourth century, when Nicholas, Bishop of Myra in present-day southern Turkey, devoted his life’s work to helping the sick and suffering, especially children. He died on Dec. 6, 343. He later was sainted, and Dec. 6 is his traditional feast day. Over the centuries, stories of St. Nick’s kind deeds were told in Europe, along with the custom of giving kids small gifts on his feast day,

Immigrants brought St. Nicholas traditions to the New World. Clement Clarke Moore’s poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” published in 1823, cemented the chimney entrance while introducing the sleigh and flying reindeer. Based in part on Moore’s descriptions, artists began portraying St. Nick with a beard, jolly rotund figure, fur-lined suit and hat, and a pipe.

By the 1920s, artists like Norman Rockwell, famous for his Saturday Evening Post covers, had settled on red as the preferred color of Santa’s suit. In 1931, illustrator Haddon Sundblom began painting advertising images of Santa for Coca-Cola, launching a prolific commercial-endorsement career.

Santa’s pseudonym, Kris Kringle, is a phonetic alteration of Christkindl, which means “Christ Child” in German. The Christ Child offered gifts to kids on Christmas Eve; German immigrants brought the tradition to America in the early 1800s.

The roles of Kris Kringle and St. Nick intertwined over generations into a single image. The 1947 film Miracle on 34th Street greatly enhanced the use of Kris Kringle.

Incidentally, Santa’s wife is a comparatively recent creation. Poet Katherine Lee Bates, who wrote “America the Beautiful,” introduced Mrs. Claus in an 1889 poem, “Goody Santa Claus on a Sleigh Ride.” In the late 1800s, “goody” was a contracted form of “good wife.” George Melachrino and His Orchestra furthered the image by recording “Mrs. Santa Claus” in 1956.

Which of these holiday characters is your family’s favorite? Are there any others you love that have interesting origins? We’d love to hear about them in the comments.

This post was originally published in 2009 and has been updated for 2015.

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Comments
  • Our favorite is (are?) the three wise men. While the Bible mentions wise men, it gives no number (it is commonly thought to be a lot more). The number three seems to derive from the fact that they gave three gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh (the first acknowledging His kingship, the second His deity (frankincense was used in temple worship), and the third His future sacrifice (myrrh is a burial spice). That had to be sobering to Mary and Joseph! The names of the wise men (Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar) also do not alpear in Scripture but are traditional names of sainted men. Their nationalities are not specified in Scripture, only that they were “from the East,” so Persia, India, Arabia, and China are all traditional options. According to the Biblical account, they did not reach Jesus until he was older (Mary and joseph were living in a “house” and the word “child” is apparently the word for toddler, not infant. So the star appeared at the time of His birth, they saw it, packed up and took a long journey, and did not reach Him for possibly 1 1/2 years, thus Herod’s instruction to kill all children under the age of 2. The star was part of a prophecy they had that is not in the Jewish prophecies. but they did not have the location of His birth (Bethlehem, which is very specifically mentioned in Jewish prophecy), which is how Herod got involved. So including them in the manger scene is inaccurate, but traditional. Many Christian families have them on camels somewhere in the house (like elf on a shelf?) travelling towards Him. But it’s all good :). So they are our favorite Christmas “characters” (and the song cemented it!). Merry Christmas to all!!

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