Although firmly entrenched as a Christmas icon, the tale of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” is a piece of relatively modern folklore penned in 1939 by a department store adman enduring a time of great personal tragedy. As Rudolph turns 75, learn the story behind the creation of the most famous reindeer of all.
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 reindeers 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.”
Those familiar with only the 1964 animated television version of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” which remains the longest-running Christmas special in television history a half-century after its debut on NBC, might not recognize the original tale. There is no Hermey the elf, no Abominable Snow Monster, not even the Land of Misfit Toys. While Rudolph was taunted for his glowing red nose and disinvited from reindeer games in May’s story, he did not live at the North Pole and was asleep in his house when Santa Claus, struggling mightily with the fog, arrived with presents and realized how the reindeer’s radiant snout could help him complete his Christmas Eve rounds.
Montgomery Ward had high hopes for its new 32-page, illustrated booklet, which would be given as a free gift to children visiting any of the department store’s 620 locations. “We believe that an exclusive story like this aggressively advertised in our newspaper ads and circulars,” the advertising department stated in a September 1939 memo, “can bring every store an incalculable amount of publicity…and, far more important a tremendous amount of Christmas traffic.”
The retailer’s holiday advertisements touted “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” as “the rollicking new Christmas verse that’s sweeping the country!” That wasn’t just hype. Children snapped up nearly 2.4 million copies of the paper-bound book in 1939. Plans to print another 1.6 million copies the following year were shelved by paper shortages due to World War II, and Rudolph remained on hiatus until the conflict’s conclusion. When the reindeer story returned in 1946, it was more popular than ever as Montgomery Ward handed out 3.6 million copies of the book.
In the interim, May married a fellow Montgomery Ward employee and became a father again, but he still struggled financially. In 1947, the retailer’s board of directors, stirred either by the holiday spirit or belief that the story lacked revenue-making potential, signed the copyright for “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” over to May. In short order, May licensed a commercial version of the book along with a full range of Rudolph-themed merchandise including puzzles, View-Master reels, snow globes, mugs and slippers with sheep wool lining and leather soles.
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.
The song and merchandise sales made May financially comfortable, but hardly rich. After leaving Montgomery Ward in 1951 to manage the Rudolph commercial empire, May returned to his former employer seven years later. He continued to work as a copywriter until his 1971 retirement. By the time he died five years later, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” had become a piece of modern folklore and a metaphor for overcoming obstacles, embracing differences and recognizing everyone’s unique potential.