Who Wrote 'Rudolph?' Meet Johnny Marks, A 'Holly Jolly' Jewish Composer

By | December 1, 2019

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Left: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, from the hugely popular Rankin-Bass TV special. Right: Johnny Marks in 1977. Sources: IMDB; William N. Jacobellis / (c) NYP Holdings, Inc. via Getty Images.

The next time you hear "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree," or "Holly Jolly Christmas," thank Johnny Marks, the Jewish songwriter who gave us many Christmas classics. The Christmas holiday has long been an inspiration to artists of all backgrounds, and contributions from the Jewish people to the groovy pop culture surrounding it can’t be quantified. Many of the most popular Christmas tunes were penned by Jewish songwriters, and Marks was the most prolific.

(It should be mentioned that the all-time biggest Christmas hit, "White Christmas," was also written by a Jewish composer -- Irving Berlin.)

While it may seem strange that someone who doesn’t regularly celebrate Christmas would throw themselves into it so openly, Marks was a songwriter who wanted to reach the widest possible audience with his work, and Christmas is the one holiday above all others that calls for positive songs that can bring the whole family together. Without this unsung Jewish hero of the Christmas season we wouldn’t be rocking around the Christmas tree, and the Rankin-Bass TV specials wouldn’t quite sound the same. 

Marks Traveled The World Before Settling Down To Write Christmas Songs

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source: LA Times

Born in Mount Vernon, New York, Marks underwent a stellar education at the McBurney School before studying at Columbia University before traveling to Paris to continue working on his music. Songwriting was in his blood; he reportedly started composing music at the age of 13, but it wasn’t until 1935 that he became a full-time professional song writer. That was interrupted at the onset of World War II, and while he didn’t have the time to compose holiday music, he did get some performing done overseas and finished the war as a Captain in the 26th Special Service Company with a Bronze Star and four Battle Stars.