The 'Grandma Got Runover By A Reindeer' Christmas carol has a long and complicated backstory that's almost as good as the song
If you’ve never heard the Christmas classic “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” then you must live under a rock. The tale of a Christmas Eve gone wrong by duo Elmo & Patsy is in heavy rotation during the holidays and for good reason. The song strays from the traditional Christmas song, not just with its storytelling aspect, but the story itself. A drunken grandma getting taken out by Santa who can’t drive? Not exactly the warm fuzzy holiday song we’re used to. So, how did “Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer” become a hit?
The story begins in 1973 with Elmo Shropshire, a San Francisco veterinarian and performer who was in a bluegrass duo with his then-wife Patsy. The song was introduced to them by a singer/songwriter named Randy Brooks who played a show at the same Lake Tahoe Hyatt and the rest, as they say is history. While that initial audience was on the fence; “They thought it was kind of cute,” Dr. Elmo explained in an interview with Mental Floss it would gain traction in popularity over the next ten years.
In 1979, a DJ in San Francisco, Gene “The Emperor” Nelson got a copy of an early recording of the song by Dr. Elmo. It got some airplay, but the following Christmas, Elmo knew that he had something special as more radio stations started picking it up.
That year he pressed 500 copies of the song on vinyl. The song continued to gain popularity and in 1982, they pressed 250,000 copies! The popularity caused Dr. Elmo to sell his veterinary hospital to finance a music video. “I paid all that money, and nothing was happening. The 250,000 copies was a good sell, but we didn’t make any money—not enough to pay for the video.”
Then during the holiday season of 1983, MTV came knocking. With the help of the homemade video, the song flew up the Billboard chart, surpassing Bing Crosby’s ‘White Christmas.’ This led to a record deal with Columbia Records and a full length album. In the thirty years since, the song has maintained a foothold in the Christmas canon. In 2000, an animated television special was made, developing the backstory further, adding corporate greed and a backstabbing cousin.
As for Dr. Elmo, he’s still performing the song. When asked about its longevity he said this: “All those hits from the early ’50s were really sweet and wonderful and lovely, They liked to play them in shopping malls so people would buy stuff. When this song came along, another generation of people—and even the younger generations now—embraced it because it’s a little dark. It was much more to their sense of humor. It wasn’t too syrupy sweet.”
Grandma getting run over by a reindeer is certainly not sweet.