Most of our Christmas lore dates back centuries: Santa Claus, the Yule log, caroling, the Christmas tree.
The most famous reindeer of all, though, dates only to the 20th century. 1939, to be exact.
The road to reindeer fame
That year, Chicago-based Montgomery Ward decided to create a giveaway children’s book instead of buying coloring books to hand out.
Robert L. May, a 34-year-old copywriter in the marketing department, was assigned to write a cheerful story starring an animal. His wife was dying of cancer at the time, and he chose to stay on the project even though his boss offered to lighten his workload
Their 4-year-old daughter, Barbara, who loved the deer in the Chicago Zoo, provided inspiration. May also tapped into his own youthful experiences of being teased for his shyness and small stature. The story would tell of a deer whose radiant red nose makes him a target for reindeer bullies.
May rejected the alliterative names Rollo and Reginald in favor of Rudolph. He wrote the poem in anapaestic tetrameter in 89 rhyming couplets, and ran it by his daughter.
The red nose, a characteristic associated with alcoholism at the time, worried May’s bosses. But illustrations by sketch artist Denver Gillen, May’s friend from the art department, helped change their minds.
Securing reindeer rights
In 1939, Montgomery Ward handed out 2.4 million copies of the 32-page Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer book to enthusiastic shoppers.
May’s wife had died in July of that year. He remarried in 1941 to a Catholic woman and later converted to her faith from Judaism.
World War II restricted paper, so Montgomery Ward couldn’t print the books again until 1946. It distributed 3.6 million copies that year.
Because May created Rudolph for his employer, Montgomery Ward owned the rights to it. When a company wanted to publish a reading of the poem, May convinced Montgomery Ward president Sewell Avery to give him the Rudolph copyright.
Many publishers passed on May’s book proposals because so many free copies had been distributed. But in 1947, Maxton Publishers printed Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and it became a best-seller. The story later appeared in theaters as a nine-minute cartoon. May also licensed Rudolph-themed puzzles, View-Master reels, snow globes and slippers.
Rudolph hits the airwaves
In 1948, May’s brother-in-law Johnny Marks adapted the poem to a song and set it to music. Gene Autry’s recording (which he made only because his wife persuaded him) became the second-best-selling Christmas album, after “White Christmas.”
The beloved stop-motion animated version, narrated by Burl Ives, debuted on television in 1964. It’s now the longest-running Christmas special on TV. It strays quite a bit from May’s story, adding Sam the Snowman, Hermey the Elf, Clarice as Rudolph’s love interest, the Abominable Snow Monster, and the Land of Misfit Toys.
Rudolph has two sequels. May wrote Rudolph’s Second Christmas in 1947 and it was published in 1992, 16 years after he died. May published Rudolph Shines Again in 1954.
Last updated: December 2019