The Origin of Rudolph, The Red-nosed Reindeer

CULTURE | December 24, 2019

Rudolph and Hermey. Source: (youtube.com)

Most Christmas traditions, such as the nativity story, the Christmas tree, gift exchanges, even Santa and his elves, have roots in ancient history. The same cannot be said, however, for a certain reindeer with a very unique nose. Rudolph, the Red-nosed Reindeer was born from the imagination of a Montgomery Ward employee in the mid-twentieth century.

It was 1939 and the United States was still suffering from the Great Depression. Department store chain Montgomery Ward was looking for a way to cut costs on the holiday promotions. They had a tradition of handing out free coloring books to children every Christmas, but this year they decided they could save money by creating their own coloring book rather than buying them from a third party. So, they turned to their copywriter, Robert L. May, to come up with the story for the coloring book.

Shown are the main entrance and display windows of the San Jose Montgomery Ward department store with cars parked in front. Source: (pinterest.com)

If they were looking for a children’s story full of holiday cheer, then May was probably not the best choice to write it. He was under a lot of emotional distress at the time as his wife was battling cancer and the medical bills had left them financially crippled. Nevertheless, he had a passion for writing and a four-year-old daughter named Barbara to serve as a consultant. Barbara was particularly fond of reindeer, so it was a natural choice for the story’s protagonist. The name Rudolph was chosen for the sake of alliteration. When May’s wife passed away in July 1939, the writing of his story provided a much-needed distraction from his grief.

A Visit From St. Nicholas by Clement C Moore. Source: (youtube.com)

May had a number of influences that helped him to create his iconic tale. The rhyming couplets were borrowed from Clement Clarke Moore’s “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” The story’s plot pays homage to Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Ugly Duckling,” but was also inspired by May’s own childhood. May was frequently bullied as a child due to being the smallest kid in his class, as well as lacking coordination, and was therefore never picked for any of the school teams.

As he wrote, May would run his ideas past his daughter for approval. May’s boss was initially skeptical of the idea of a reindeer with a red nose but approved the story once May’s friend Denver Gillen, who worked in Montgomery Ward’s art department, provided the illustrations.  

In 1939, Montgomery Ward in Chicago asked one of its admen to write a story for the department store's own children's book. Source: (npr.org)

That December, 2.4 million copies of the coloring book were given out to the children. However, paper shortages caused by World War II caused the story to be shelved until the end of the war. It made a comeback in 1946 and this time 3.6 million copies were given out. In 1947, for reasons unknown, Montgomery Ward signed the copyright over to May and the story was printed commercially for the first time, accompanied by a range of Rudolph-themed merchandise including puzzles and snow globes. The next year, a nine-minute cartoon based on Rudolph was shown in theaters.

Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer by Robert L May. Source: (youtube.com)

In 1949, May’s brother-in-law, Johnny Marks, who was also a songwriter, created the lyrics and melody for the song, “Rudolph, the Red-nosed Reindeer.” It was recorded by Gene Autry and sold two million copies in the first year. Then in 1964, the TV special added Hermey the elf, along with the Abominable Snow Monster and the Land of Misfit Toys. While May initially left Montgomery Ward in 1951 to manage the distribution of his Rudolph merchandise, he returned seven years later to continue working as a copywriter, until his retirement in 1971.

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