I grew up hearing “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” sung on our radio every Christmas. I loved the song but never knew the story of how it originated.
And I bet you didn’t either.
Here is the story.
Some versions of the story say that Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was created by a man who was seeking to bring comfort to his daughter as her mother lay dying of cancer and who subsequently sold his creation to a department store chain.
Even though that makes a more emotional tale, only part of it is true. Instead, the Rudolph character and story was developed for commercial purposes by a Montgomery Ward copywriter at the specific request of his employer, and that copywriter then tested the story out on his own daughter during the development process to ensure it would appeal to children.
Rudolph came to life in 1939 when the Chicago-based Montgomery Ward company asked one of their copywriters, 34-year-old Robert L. May, to come up with a Christmas story they could give away in booklet form to shoppers as a promotional gimmick. The Montgomery Ward stores had been buying and distributing coloring books to customers at Christmastime every year but May’s department head saw that creating a giveaway booklet of their own was a way to save money. Robert May, an ad copywriter for the company, was tapped to create the booklet.
May, drawing in part on the tale of The Ugly Duckling and his own background of being teased as a child for being small and shy. settled on the idea of an underdog ostracized by the reindeer community because of his physical abnormality: a glowing red nose.
Trying to think of a name for the reindeer, May considered and rejected Rollo (too cheerful and carefree a name for the story of a misfit) and Reginald (too British) before deciding on Rudolph.
He then wrote Rudolph’s story in verse as a series of rhyming couplets, testing it out on his 4-year-old daughter, Barbara, as he went along. She urged him to read it to her every night where he continued to embellish the tale.
Although Barbara was thrilled with Rudolph’s story, May’s boss was worried that a story featuring a red nose — an image associated with drinking and drunkards — was unsuitable for a Christmas tale. May responded by taking Denver Gillen, a friend from Montgomery Ward’s art department, to the Lincoln Park Zoo to sketch some deer. Gillen’s illustrations of a red-nosed reindeer overcame the hesitancy of May’s superiors, and the Rudolph story was approved. Montgomery Ward distributed 2.4 million copies of the Rudolph booklet in 1939, and although wartime paper shortages curtailed printing for the next several years, a total of 6 million copies had been distributed by the end of 1946.
“Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” was reprinted commercially beginning in 1947 and shown in theaters as a nine-minute cartoon the following year, but the Rudolph phenomenon really took off when May’s brother-in-law, songwriter Johnny Marks, developed the lyrics and melody for a Rudolph song.
Marks’ musical version of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” (turned down by many in the music industry who didn’t want to meddle with the established Santa legend) was recorded by cowboy crooner Gene Autry in 1949, sold two million copies that year, and went on to become one of the best-selling songs of all time (second only to “White Christmas”). A stop-action television special about Rudolph produced by Rankin/Bass and narrated by Burl Ives was first aired in 1964 and remains a popular perennial holiday favorite in the U.S.
The legacy of Bob May’s endearing creation rippled beyond imagination. Rudolph leaped from pages and melodies into the hearts of millions, gracing TV specials, movies, toys, and even the illustrious Ringling Bros. circus.
From a father’s story to an immortalized anthem, Rudolph symbolizes the essence of Christmas alongside Santa Claus and holiday merriment. As the song aptly concludes, “He’ll go down in history,” etching a tale of resilience, acceptance, and the transformative power of a little red-nosed reindeer into the fabric of the season.