Though Rudolf Gunvaldr Hjálmarrssøn Renskräshål (1804-1818) is perhaps better known as Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer, it is unclear whether he ever led Santa Claus’ sleigh, much less possessed the “very shiny” red nose Gene Autry sang about in 1949.
What we know about Renskräshål is that he was a father, a husband, a son. We know he was a pretty big boy, if not a very big one. But, like the moon landing and the origins of Hayley Duff and Paris Hilton’s bitter 2004 legal battle over mid-aughts non hit “Screwed” before him, most of the facts of Renskräshål’s life have been lost to history. It’s a wonder we even talk about him at all these days, considering how immediately he disappeared from the public record following his death in 1818 from a fatal combination of weight loss and diarrhea brought on by a Mycobacterium avium paratuberculosis-caused gut infection—a horribly painful way to die and, unfortunately, the only thing we know about Renträskhål’s life in great detail.
It is believed that after his death, Renskräshål’s body began to decompose, entering autolysis, or “self-digestion.” Without oxygen, the membranes in his cells began to rupture, releasing enzymes that consumed him whole. Rigor mortis set in, then bloat, then liquefication. He soon became nothing more than a skeleton, unrecognizable to those who knew him best. Perhaps if his wife, a human woman named Sharon, had preserved his corpse in a bog for safekeeping, exhuming him on Christmas for annual display, she could have kept his body intact and, thus, his legend alive.
Whatever the facts of Renskräshål’s life, none of them made their way to New York in time for American poet Clement Clarke Moore to incorporate them into “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” his contribution to the greater national project of creating made-up folk traditions for the children of wealthy white families. His 1823 poem spoke of “eight tiny rein-deer,” going so far as to name them:
“Now, Dasher! Now, Dancer! Now, Prancer, and Vixen!
“On, Comet! On, Cupid! On, Dunder and Blixem!
Renskräshål was not among them.
Incensed by the erasure, Renskräshål’s family kept the story of his life alive, embellishing the details with each retelling. “My dad got hit by a sleigh on a foggy night and his face started bleeding it was bad” soon became “My dad had a magical red nose that he used to guide Santa Claus’ sleigh through the fog also he flew.” Fired up by the family lore, Renskräshål’s descendants would tell the legend of their ancestor to anyone who would listen and not think it was weird that their grandpa was a reindeer.
That’s how Renskräshål’s mythos landed in the hands of Robert L. May, a frustrated author-turned-copywriter making ads for Chicago-based department store giant Montgomery Ward. Renskräshål’s great great granddaughter, also named Sharon, had traveled to Chicago for the 1893 World’s Fair. She liked the city so much, she stayed. Forty-six years passed, the details of which are also lost to history, which is why I don’t know them now. She met May at the park, let’s say, told him about her great great grandfather, and licensed his life story for $45, which was $87,000 in today money. May took that dead reindeer, turned him into a coloring book character that then became a hit song that then became a Rankin/Bass claymation movie, and the rest, as they say, is history.
This Christmas, Jezebel remembers Renskräshål not as the red-nosed reindeer of legend but as the family man who died and gave his grandchildren licensing opportunities through the use of his likeness. We could all be so lucky.