The Origin of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
A Story About a Christmas Classic
For almost three quarters of a century the song Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer has remained a popular hit at Christmas time. In fact the song, has become an integral part of our Christmas celebration much the same as other Christmas musical classics such as Silent Night or White Christmas.
Like Silent Night, which began as a modest piece intended to enhance the Christmas Eve Mass in the church in the little Austrian village of Oberndorf, and went on to become a Christmas classic sung and enjoyed world wide, the motivation behind the creation of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer was also modest.
The fact is Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer was created by a major retail store for the purpose of enticing shoppers to do their Christmas shopping at that store. However, the love that the copywriter assigned to write the story invested in its creation caused it to transcend its original limited commercial objective and touch the hearts of adults and children in the generations that followed.
And the story of the origins of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer is as heartwarming as the story and song itself.
A Ray of Sunshine for a Sad Little Girl
Rudolph's story begins sometime in 1939. The nation was still in the midst of the Great Depression but that didn't prevent people from celebrating and enjoying the good times of life. Times may have been difficult but that just meant that people had to be more careful with their money.
In the Chicago headquarters of department store giant, Montgomery Ward, that summer, executives were making plans for the coming Christmas season.
In those days cities were more compact and commerce was centered in the downtown. Scattered amongst the big banks and office buildings were the large, multistory department stores.
During the Christmas season shoppers would flock downtown and these stores competed fiercely for these people's shopping dollars.
To attract customers, the stores put up lavish decorations and, in their toy departments, they would create large Christmas kingdom displays with Santa Claus enthroned in the middle.
The highlight of the Christmas shopping season for children was a trip downtown with Mom and Dad to visit Santa Claus.
Children would stand in line and, when their turn came, would sit on Santa's lap. After assuring Santa that they had been good, or had at least were trying hard to be good, they would tell Santa what they wanted for Christmas.
Santa Claus would then assure them that he would do his best to give them the toy they most desired and then, after making their requests and as they got up to leave, Santa would reach into the big sack next to his chair and, reminding them to be good, give them a little parting gift.
For many years Montgomery Ward had filled their Santa's sack with a Christmas coloring book that they had specially printed each year. But this year the Montgomery Ward executives wanted something new and different.
They also wanted to save money. So, instead of calling upon an outside firm to create the new item, as they had done in the past, they decided to have their own advertising department create the new giveaway.
Thus it happened that Robert L. May, a 34 year-old copywriter for Montgomery Ward, found himself charged with coming up with a new gift for their Santa to give to the little children.
May went to work developing a Christmas story for children. As a child, May had always been small for his age and this had brought forth taunts and ridicule from the other children. Drawing upon his experiences of being somewhat different and an outcast, May set about creating a character with similar problems who, in the end, rises above his problems and is transformed.
The year 1939 was a difficult time in the life of Robert May. In addition to the worries of losing his job in the Depression that had engulfed the economy, his wife lay dying of cancer.
Despite his own worries and grief, May had to be stoic and set his own grief aside to help his four year old daughter, Barbara deal with the trauma of seeing her Mother die.
However, little Barbara, in her own way helped her Dad with the creation of Rudolph.
Robert worked on the project in the office and then came home and tested out themes and story lines on Barbara. Work and home life converged in a way that both allowed father and daughter to come closer together as well as providing a diversion from the troubles that surrounded them. Some even credit Barbara with the naming of Rudolph, claiming that May tested different names on Barbara and Rudolph was the one that she enjoyed the most.
Robert May's creation was not the Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer song that everyone now knows so well and it was not the popular cartoon that is now shown on TV each Christmas.
No, May's creation was a short story written in rhyming verse. It was the story of a little reindeer who was different due to a physical deformity – a bright red nose.
Unlike the Rudolph we now know from the song and cartoon, May's original Rudolph lived an ordinary life with his parents in the woods. He did not live at the North Pole and his parents were not part of Santa's reindeer team.
Oh, Rudolph had to deal with the taunts of the other little reindeer who shunned him because he was different. Like May as a child, Rudolph was lonely and had few friends. But, rather than dwelling on his problems, Rudolph had a positive outlook on life and did not let his deformity hold him back.
In the original story, Rudolph's big moment came when Santa landed his sleigh at Rudolph's home to deliver gifts to him and the other good little reindeer in the neighborhood.
As Santa was landing, a fog started to roll in. By the time Santa had finished delivering presents to the little reindeer in the area, the fog had become dense, making it impossible for Santa to take off safely.
With children all over the world expecting him to visit and leave presents, Santa had a dilemma – he couldn't see to take off in the fog but if he did not take off he would disappoint children all over the world.
At that moment Santa noticed Rudolph with his shiny red nose and asked him to lead his sleigh. Rudolph agreed and Santa was able to make his deliveries.
Following Santa's successful Christmas Eve journey with Rudolph in the lead, the story ends with Santa saying to Rudolph, "By YOU last night's journey was actually bossed. Without you, I'm certain we'd all have been lost!"
This is a little different from the song and cartoon which end with the other reindeer praising Rudolph by saying he will go down in history.
May's Book Was an Immediate Hit with Children
The booklet given out by the Montgomery Ward Santas was an immediate hit with children and their parents with Montgomery Ward distributing 2.4 million copies the first year. The popularity of the story continued in the years immediately following 1939 but, because of wartime paper shortages, Montgomery Ward was only able to produce and distribute 6 million copies between 1939 and 1946. Because the booklets were simple giveaways for children printed on newspaper stock very few of those original 6 million booklets produced by Montgomery Ward survive to this day.
Despite the immediate success of his creation, things did not go well for Robert May. His wife died about the time the Rudolph story first came out. The medical expenses of her illness left May deeply in debt. Further, even though May was the author of an immensely popular work he did not benefit financially from it. First of all, it was a give away and did not produce any revenue directly (but Montgomery Ward profited indirectly as the people who thronged to its stores with their children to get the booklets, tended to stay and do their Christmas shopping there). But, more importantly, while May was the author of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, Montgomery Ward was the owner of the work since the story was produced as a part of his job at Montgomery Ward (as lawyers would say it was a "work for hire").
Robert May Gets Rights to His Creation and Gene Autry Agrees to Record the Song
In late 1946, the financially strapped May approached Sewell Avery, President of Montgomery Ward and asked for the rights to publish the story commercially. Avery granted his request and in January 1947 the copyright to Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer was given to May by his employer. May then published the story commercially as a book in 1947 and also authorized the production and release of a nine minute cartoon version of the story for showing in theaters (in those pre-TV days theaters usually preceded the feature show with newsreels and/or cartoons). May then teamed up with his brother-in-law, songwriter Johnny Marks to turn May's story-poem into a song. In writing the lyrics, Marks changed the story slightly from May's original to the story we know today in the song.
May and Marks originally had some difficulty finding a singer for the song as many were reluctant to do something that changed the image of Santa and his reindeer as set down by Clement Moore a century earlier in his popular poem entitled It Was the Night Before Christmas. But finally Gene Autry, the singer and actor best known for his role in westerns agreed to record the song. Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer was first sung commercially by Gene Autry in 1949 and instantly became a smash hit and had its place assured in the cannon of traditional Christmas music.
From 1947 on, May enjoyed the benefits of his 1939 creation. He left Montgomery Ward and devoted his time to managing his creation until his retirement in 1971. In 1976 May died but his story about Rudolph lives on adding joy to the lives of new generations of children just as it brought joy to his four year old daughter Barbara during that difficult Christmas season in 1939 as she faced the holidays with her mother slowly dying.
Questions & Answers
© 2006 Chuck Nugent