Inspiration behind our favourite festive stories | Sunday Observer

Inspiration behind our favourite festive stories

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer began life as a department store colouring book character.

We cherish our favourite Christmas stories and revisit them every year, but rarely do we take a moment to consider their origins.

The likes of Ebeneezer Scrooge, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and the Grinch are fixtures of the festive season, and the circumstances surrounding their conception are frequently fascinating.

Here’s how some of our most-loved Yuletide tales were spun.

A Visit from St Nicholas (1823)

More popularly known as "Twas the Night Before Christmas”, this poem by Clement Clarke Moore, a professor of Oriental and Greek Literature and Divinity in New York, did much to establish American Christmas traditions and the mythology of Santa Claus.

The verses – giving an astonished father’s eyewitness account of Santa’s arrival by flying sleigh – was first published in the state newspaper The Troy Sentinel after a friend of Moore’s submitted it without his knowledge.

Printed unattributed, there has been some debate about whether Moore really was the author.

Henry Livingston Jr, a farmer and poet, also has a strong case for being its originator.

Whatever the truth, the result owes a debt to Washington Irving’s earlier book A History of New York (1809), which set down the seasonal traditions of the state’s Dutch settlers. Santa Claus, in fact, is an anglicising of the Dutch name for the character: “Sinterklass”.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1939)

According to the custom established by A Visit from St Nicholas, Santa’s sleigh is pulled by eight reindeer. Not so, this charming story by Robert L May informed readers.

Rudolph is the ninth, overcoming mockery at his unusual glowing red nose to play a vital role in guiding the carriage through the murky night skies.

May worked as an advertising copywriter for the Chicago department store chain Montgomery Ward during the Great Depression, and was assigned to develop a character that would help sell colouring books in December.

Rudolph was inspired by the creator's daughter's love of reindeers at the Chicago zoo

He was inspired by his four-year-old daughter Barbara’s love of deer at the city zoo and conceived the idea for the nose by watching mist rise from Lake Michigan from his office window.

Tragically, the author’s wife Evelyn died of cancer during the writing of Rudolph but he pressed on, taking solace in his confidence that the story would bring pleasure to children.

Rudolph’s commercial origins were quickly forgotten and he was soon absorbed into Christmas lore, the subject of a favourite nursery rhyme.

It’s a Wonderful Life(1946)

Frank Capra’s seasonal drama sprung from an unusual source: a Christmas card itself.

Philip Van Doren Stern, a historian of the American Civil War, had written a 21-page, 4,000-word short story, “The Greatest Gift”, to amuse himself in November 1939 and sent it on to a number of magazines for publication, all of whom rejected it.

Coming across it again four years later, he decided to include a copy in the greetings cards he was sending out to friends.

One found its way into the hands of Cary Grant’s agent, Frank Vincent, who proposed it as a vehicle for his client.

RKO snapped up the rights for $10,000 but failed to develop it into a workable screenplay, passing it on to Capra’s new production company, Liberty Films.

Thomas Mitchell, Donna Reed and James Stewart stars in It’s a Wonderful Life.

Nine script doctors – Capra, Dalton Trumbo, Dorothy Parker and Clifford Odets among them – would work on it before the draft was deemed satisfactory.

James Stewart, rather than Grant, ended up playing the part of George Bailey, a bank lender who wishes he’d never been born, until angel Clarence Oddbody (Henry Travers) shows him a nightmare world without him.

Stewart had returned from the Second World War, where he had distinguished himself as a bomber pilot in the US Air Force, and resolved to give up acting to dedicate himself to more “worthwhile” causes.

Capra, though, persuaded him that storytelling provided an invaluable public service and the conviction Stewart brought to the part of Bailey proved to be amongst his very best work.