Wednesday, November 30, 2011

How Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer Became a Legend

January is the birthday month of the beloved red-nosed reindeer we are all familiar with but we always associate him with the Christmas season.

Did you ever wonder where Rudolph came from and how he came to be part of Christmas? No, not the script for the TV special bearing his name. But who created Rudolph and how did he grow into the beloved Christmas figure we now know?

An email made its way around the internet containing the true story of how the lead puller of Santa’s sleigh came into existence through the artistic endeavor of Robert L. May. It’s a heartwarming story that includes love, heartbreak, tragedy and triumph. Does it sound almost too good to be true? Part of it is according to May himself, David Emery of and

The heart of the inaccurate story asserts that May’s wife Evelyn died of cancer in December 1938 and that this battle had stripped them of all their savings. The bereaved father couldn’t even afford a Christmas present for their young daughter Barbara.

The little girl wanted to know why her mother had to be different than other mothers. So he decided to write a story to bring her comfort and hope. From this May supposedly created a misfit reindeer that had a shiny red nose.

But according to an interview given by May to the Gettysburg Times in 1975 Rudolph’s conception began on a cold January day in 1939. May was a copywriter with Montgomery Ward in Chicago when his boss asked him to come up with a character and story for the annual Christmas coloring book. The supervisor suggested an animal character similar to storybook figure Ferdinand the Bull. May agreed.

Evelyn May did have cancer and four year old Barbara did inspire him. The little girl was fascinated with the deer she saw at the zoo. It was this enchantment, not her mother that inspired May to choose a reindeer for the main character of his parable.

In August of 1939 barely a month after his wife died May finished the final draft of his story.

"I called Barbara and her grandparents into the living room and read it to them," he later wrote. "In their eyes I could see that the story accomplished what I had hoped."

This is the story accepted by May’s supervisor and made into the coloring books given to children who visited the store that Christmas.

Writer David Emery of tells of the alternate version of this story at He compared May’s account and the version of Ace Collins, author of Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas. This is the erroneous report making its way around cyberspace now.

Emery writes that “…while I'm sure it accurately portrays some of the emotions in play, directly contradicts Bob May's own account of what transpired.” Emery contacted Collins and asked about the discrepancies between the two stories. Collins stated that his account came to him by way of “’letters and documents supplied by a Montgomery Ward PR person just before the company went out of business in 2001.’” He also believes his version of the story is “’….as truthful as there is.’”

May’s own children have been asked about the origins of the beloved little reindeer. Their version of Rudolph’s story has always matched their father’s account exactly. Asking May about it now is out of the question though. The former copywriter died at the age of 71 in 1976. agrees with Emery’s findings. It also includes interesting trivia about Rudolph at

After World War II the license for Rudolph was in great demand. But since May created the story as an employee of Montgomery Ward he didn’t own the copyright. It belonged to the department store. Then in January of 1947 May told company president Sewell Avery about his continued debt due to his wife’s illness. At this Avery handed over the copyright and gave May financial security.

Rudolph’s parable was then commercially printed and made into a nine minute cartoon.

Around this time May’s brother-in-law songwriter Johnny Marks took the story and made it into a song. They persuaded singing cowboy Gene Autry to record it in 1949 after artists Bing Crosby and Dinah Shore refused it.

Lo and behold “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” was such a success that it became the second most popular song of all time. The first being “White Christmas” by Bing Crosby.

Rudolph’s story doesn’t end there though. There’s more.

May’s own childhood is one source of inspiration for Rudolph’s biography. As a child he often dealt with bullies because of his small stature, slight build and shyness. Hans Christian Andersen’s classic tome The Ugly Duckling was another influence for the famous reindeer.

May’s original classic story differs greatly from the one on TV too.

For instance, Rudolph wasn’t the son of Donner, and didn’t live at the North Pole. He and his parents lived in an average reindeer village somewhere else. And his nose wasn’t a source of embarrassment to them either. They gave him a good self-image and a sense of self-worth.

And finally Rudolph gained Santa’s notice differently than the incident depicted in the Rankin Bass TV special. at says it this way:

“…..Santa discovered the red-nosed reindeer quite by accident when he noticed a glow emanating from Rudolph’s room while he was delivering presents to Rudolph’s house. Worried that the thickening fog that night, already the cause of several accidents and delays, would keep him from completing Christmas Eve rounds, Santa tapped Rudolph to lead his team, observing on their return: ’By YOU last night’s journey was actually bossed. Without you, I’m certain we’d all have been lost!’”

Here’s to that wonderfully glowing nose and looking forward  to his upcoming 73rd birthday. Happy Birthday Rudolph!


For Claire Hickey, writing is a newly realized passion. Both at the Washington Times Communities and within the pages of an inspirational tome, she hopes to share what she’s learned through her own trials and tribulations. Read more of Claire’s work at Feed The Mind, Nourish The Soul in the Communities at The Washington Times and her blog Sustenance For The Mind.

To leave a comment for Claire, scroll down to comments. Thanks you so much for starting the holiday season here.


Jerrie Alexander said...

What a lovely story! Thanks for sharing it with us.

Anonymous said...

Great story! Good research and very well done. Never knew all that stuff about Rudolph.

Ruby Johnson said...

Jerrie and Thorne:

Speaking for Claire. She never does anything that's not thorough.
Glad you stopped by

Anonymous said...

I am very happy to read this. This is the type of details that needs to be given and not the random misinformation that is at the other blogs. Appreciate your sharing this greatest doc.

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