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Oh, Rudolph with your nose so bright, where did you come from?

'Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" has always struck me as faintly sinister: a parable about conformity with a strangely cynical moral. Ronald D. Lankford Jr. doesn't go quite that far in his engaging and informative book "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," but he brings a gently anthropological tone to the story of this now-inescapable bit of holiday iconography.

Rudolph was the creation of Robert L. May, who dreamed him up while working as an advertising copywriter for the great Chicago-based retail chain Montgomery Ward. After attending Dartmouth College — thus sharing an alma mater with other famous creators of fanciful tales for credulous youngsters, including Theodor Geisel and Fred Rogers — May returned to the Midwest, where he invented the story of the lonely Laplander in 1939.

May originally claimed that Rudolph was intended to cheer up his daughter in the face of her mother’s affliction with cancer, a poignant origin story whose “basic premise,” Lankford said, “seems to be untrue.” Whatever the details, Montgomery Ward was quick to see the marketing potential of May’s fable, printing more than 2 million copies in the form of promotional giveaways, a staggering level of outreach in a nation of 131 million.

Rudolph was subsequently vaulted into ubiquity by Gene Autry’s hit recording of 1949. Less famous spinoffs included a comic-book sequel in which Rudolph’s fame affects his ego, “producing a subpar effort in the toy workshop” until his hubris is punished and he returns to his role as a cheerful cog in the consumerist juggernaut.

Like all such artifacts, Rudolph reflects the psychology of the society that produced him. May’s original conception, a heart-rending depiction of a tearful reindeer in delicate Edwardian washes, has a soulful Depression-era plangency, while the jaunty Rudolph of the 1950s, sketched in bold primary colors, reflects a cheerful can-do America entering a “forward-looking era” that “favored exuberant songs and stories along with an emphasis on youth.”

If Lankford’s book has a weakness, it’s that it doesn’t quite know whether it wants to be a full-fledged piece of sociology or a gently amusing nostalgia ride. What is undeniable is that Lankford’s book, and its lush illustrations, provides a peerless look at a bygone time.

To read Ward’s in-house memo reminding his clerks that “service, the right attitude, and a desire to do his best, brought Rudolph the envy of all” is to glimpse a time when culture, commerce and national identity were intertwined in all kinds of strange ways. If Rudolph is not exactly “an American hero,” as Lankford’s subtitle claims, he may instead be something more complex — and interesting.

Michael Lindgren is a frequent contributor to The Washington Post.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

An American Hero

By Ronald D. Lankford Jr.

ForeEdge. 224 pp. Paperback, $22.95

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