Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

Rudolph Cropped

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To most of us, the character of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer –
immortalized in song and a popular TV special – has always been an
essential part of our Christmas folklore. But Rudolph is a decidedly
twentieth-century invention whose creation can be traced to a specific
time and person.

Rudolph came to life in 1939 when the Chicago-based Montgomery Ward
company (operators of a chain of department stores) asked one of their
copywriters, 34-year-old Robert L. May, to come up with a Christmas
story they could give away to shoppers as a promotional gimmick. (The
Montgomery Ward stores had been buying and giving away coloring books
for Christmas every year, and May’s department head saw creating a
giveaway booklet of their own as a way to save money.) May, who had a
penchant for writing children’s stories and limericks, was tapped to
create the booklet.

May, drawing in part on the tale of The Ugly Duckling and his own
background (he was a often taunted as a child for being shy, small, and
slight), settled on the idea of an underdog ostracized by the reindeer
community because of his physical abnormality: a glowing red nose.
Looking for an alliterative name, 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 proceeded to write
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. 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 bosses, and the
Rudolph story was approved. Montgomery Ward distributed 2.4 million
copies of the Rudolph booket in 1939, and although wartime paper
shortages curtailed printing for the next several years, a total of 6
million copies had been given by the end of 1946.

The post-war demand for licensing the Rudolph character was
tremendous, but since May had created the story as an employee of
Montgomery Ward, they held the copyright and he received no royalties.
Deeply in debt from the medical bills resulting from his wife’s terminal
illness (she died about the time May created Rudolph), May persuaded
Montgomery Ward’s corporate president, Sewell Avery, to turn the
copyright over to him in January 1947. With the rights to his creation
in hand, May’s financial security was assured. “Rudolph the Red-Nosed
Reindeer” was printed commercially in 1947 and shown in theaters as a
nine-minute cartoon the following year. The Rudolph phenomenon really
took off, however, 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 who
didn’t want to meddle with the established Santa legend) was recorded by
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 TV special about Rudolph narrated by Burl Ives was
produced in 1964 and remains a popular perennial holiday favorite in the

May quit his copywriting job in 1951 and spent seven years managing
his creation before returning to Montgomery Ward, where he worked until
his retirement in 1971. May died in 1976, comfortable in the life his
reindeer creation had provided for him.

In closing, although the story of Rudolph is primarily known to us
through the lyrics of Johnny Marks’ song, the story May wrote is
substantially different in a number of ways. Rudolph was not one of
Santa’s reindeer (or the offspring of one of Santa’s reindeer), and he
did not live at the North Pole. Rudolph dwelled in an “ordinary”
reindeer village elsewhere, and although he was taunted and laughed at
for having a shiny red nose, he was not regarded by his parents as a
shameful embarrassment. Rudolph was brought up in a loving household
and was a responsible reindeer with a good self-image and sense of worth.
Moreover, Rudolph did not rise to fame when Santa picked him out from
the reindeer herd because of his shiny nose. Santa discovered the
red-nosed reindeer quite by accident, when he noticed the glow emanating
from Rudolph’s room while delivering presents to Rudolph’s house.
Worried that the thickening fog — already the cause of several accidents
and delays — would keep him from completing his Christmas Eve rounds,
Santa tapped Rudolph to lead his team, observing upon their return: “By
YOU last night’s journey was actually bossed. Without you, I’m certain
we’d all have been lost!”

Merry Christmas to you and yours!



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I appreciate it.

Dick S

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