“Frosty the Snowman” (or “Frosty the Snow Man“) is a popular Christmas song written by Walter “Jack” Rollins and Steve Nelson, and first recorded by Gene Autry and the Cass County Boys in 1950. It was written after the success of Autry’s recording of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” the previous year; Rollins and Nelson shipped the new song to Autry, who recorded “Frosty” in search of another seasonal hit.
Like “Rudolph”, “Frosty” was subsequently adapted to other media including a popular television special by Rankin/Bass Productions (formerly known as Videocraft International), Frosty the Snowman. The ancillary rights to the Frosty the Snowman character are owned by Warner Bros.,but due to the prominence of the TV special, merchandising of the character is generally licensed in tandem with that special’s current owners, DreamWorks Classics.
Balsam wreaths and visions of sugarplums had barely faded in the first weeks of 1939, but thoughts inside the Chicago headquarters of retail giant Montgomery Ward had already turned to the next Christmas 11 months away. The retailer had traditionally purchased and distributed coloring books to children as a holiday promotion, but the advertising department decided it would be cheaper and more effective instead to develop its own Christmas-themed book in-house.
The assignment fell to Robert May, a copywriter with a knack for turning a limerick at the company’s holiday party. The adman, however, had difficulty summoning up holiday cheer, and not just because of the date on the calendar. Not only was the United States still trying to shake the decade-long Great Depression while the rumblings of war grew once again Europe, but May’s wife was suffering with cancer and the medical bills had thrown the family into debt. Sure, he was pursuing his passion to write, but churning out mail order catalog copy about men’s shirts instead of penning the Great American Novel was not what he had envisioned himself doing at age 33 with a degree from Dartmouth College.
Given the assignment to develop an animal story, May thought a reindeer was a natural for the leading role (not to mention that his 4-year-old daughter, Barbara, loved the reindeer every time she visited the zoo). As he peered out at the thick fog that had drifted off Lake Michigan, May came up with the idea of a misfit reindeer ostracized because of his luminescent nose who used his physical abnormality to guide Santa’s sleigh and save Christmas. Seeking an alliterative name, May scribbled possibilities on a scrap of paper—Rollo, Reginald, Rodney and Romeo were among the choices—before circling his favorite. Rudolph.
As May worked on “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” through the summer, his wife’s health worsened. She passed away in July 1939. Now a widower and a single father, May refused the offer of his boss to give the assignment to someone else. “I needed Rudolph now more than ever,” he later wrote. Burying his grief, May finished the story in August.
The 89 rhyming couplets in “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” borrow from Clement Clarke Moore’s “A Visit from St. Nicholas” right from the story’s opening line: “Twas the day before Christmas, and all through the hills/The reindeer were playing…enjoying the spills.” Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale “The Ugly Duckling” also inspired the storyline as did May’s own childhood when he endured taunts from schoolmates for being small and shy. “Rudolph and I were something alike,” the copywriter told Guideposts magazine in January 1975. “As a child I’d always been the smallest in the class. Frail, poorly coordinated, I was never asked to join the school teams.”
In 1949, songwriter Johnny Marks, who happened to be May’s brother-in-law, set Rudolph’s story to music. After Bing Crosby reportedly turned down the chance, singing cowboy Gene Autry recorded the song, which sold 2 million copies in the first year and remains one of the best-selling tunes of all time.
More recently, popular Christmas songs, often Christmas songs introduced in theater, television, film, or other entertainment media, tend to be specifically about Christmas or have a wintertime theme. They are typically not overtly religious. The most popular set of these titles—heard over airwaves, on the Internet, in shopping centers and elevators, even on the street during the Christmas season—have been composed and performed from the 1930s onward. “Jingle Bells,” “Jolly Old Saint Nicholas,” and “Up on the House Top,” however, date from the mid-19th century.
The largest portion of these songs in some way describes or is reminiscent of Christmas traditions, how Western Christian countries tend to celebrate the holiday, i.e., with caroling, mistletoe, exchanging of presents, a Christmas tree, feasting, jingle bells, etc. Celebratory or sentimental, and nostalgic in tone, they hearken back to simpler times with memorable holiday practices—expressing the desire either to be with someone or at home for Christmas. Many titles help define the mythical aspects of modern Christmas celebration: Santa Claus bringing presents, coming down the chimney, being pulled by reindeer, etc. New mythical characters are created, defined, and popularised by these songs; “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “Frosty the Snowman” were both introduced by Gene Autry a year apart (1949 and 1950 respectively).Though overtly religious, and authored (at least partly) by a writer of many church hymns, no drumming child appears in any biblical account of the Christian nativity scene—this character was introduced to the tradition by Katherine K. Davis in her “The Little Drummer Boy” (written in 1941, with a popular version being released in 1958).
More recent, copyrighted carols about the Nativity include “I Wonder as I Wander” (1933), “Mary’s Boy Child” (1956), “Little Drummer Boy” (1941), “Do You Hear What I Hear?” (1962), and “Mary, Did You Know?” (1984).