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Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer; the real story

Written By | Dec 19, 2019

FORT WORTH, Texas: Robert May’s holiday standard, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer will be 81 next month. Rudolph first appeared in a 1939 booklet written by Robert L. May and published by Montgomery Ward, a retail and catalog department store in Chicago, Illinois.

The origins of Rudolph

The author of one of Christmas’ most famous pop-culture icons, Robert May grew up in New York in an affluent, secular Jewish home. May’s family fortunes were lost during the Great Depression. In the early 1930’s May, a Dartmouth graduate, moved to Chicago and took a job as a low-paid in-house advertising copywriter for Montgomery Ward.

At Montgomery Ward, May began to write a Christmas book for shoppers and Rudolph, The Red Nosed-Reindeer was born. While May was working on the book, his wife Evelyn was stricken with cancer. Spending time with his daughter Barbara, then four years old, the writer chose to make his poem’s leading character a deer; a favorite trip for the duo was to visit the deer at the Chicago Zoo.

From tragedy to tradition

Despite his wife’s passing, May completed the poem in August of 1939. “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.”

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: From poem to pop-culture icon

In 1946, May received an offer from a company that wanted to do a spoken-word record of the poem. As a single parent May could have used the income, however, Montgomery Ward held the rights to the poem. In a bit of a Christmas miracle, or perhaps it was a time in history when people were more likely to think about others, Sewell Avery, the Montgomery Ward’s company’s president, gave the copyright rights to the poem to May, free and clear.

Robert L. May and daughter Barbara, along with 1st edition of his Rudolph book.

In1947, Maxton Publishers, a small New York publishing company, printed a retail edition of the Rudolph (poem) book. In 1948, May’s brother-in-law, Johnny Marks, wrote (words and music) an adaptation of Rudolph. Though the song was turned down by popular vocalists like Bing Crosby and Dinah Shore, singing cowboy Gene Autry released the song in 1949. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was a success, being outsold only by Irving Berlin’s White Christmas.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: An early victim of Fake News

Each holiday season an email makes its way around the internet with the “true” story of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. In it, the little girl wanted to know why her mother was dying; why she had to die, to be different than other mothers. So, her father decided to write a story to bring her comfort and hope. From this, the email alleges, Robert May created a misfit reindeer that had a shiny red nose. Writer David Emery of Urban Legends tells of the alternate version of this story at ThoughtCo. He compared May’s account and the version of Ace Collins, author of Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas. Emery writes:

“…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.’”

The May children and their version of Rudolph’s story is the same as their father’s account. Asking May about it now is out of the question though. The former poet died at the age of 71 in 1976.

The many lives of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

In 1964, Rankin and Bass turned May’s story of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer into a forty-seven-minute cartoon. May’s own childhood is one source of inspiration for Rudolph’s biography. As a child May dealt with bullies because of his small stature, slight build and shyness. Hans Christian Andersen’s classic tome The Ugly Duckling was another influence on the famous reindeer. May’s original classic story differs greatly from the one on TV too.

For instance, May’s 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.

Rankin/Bass stop-action cartoon of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964)

May’s original story describes 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 81st birthday. Happy Early Birthday Rudolph! And Merry Christmas to all!

Read more of Claire’s work at Feed the Mind, Nourish the Soul at Communities Digital News.
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Claire Hickey

Claire Hickey was born the last year of the Baby Boom and spent the first half of childhood in Chicago. She has always loved to write but wanted to create pieces worth reading. Her curiosity and love of research lead her to create her column based on the “garbage in garbage out” theory to provide interesting and thought-provoking pieces that enrich her readers. She also believes life is a banquet and loves to learn new things. Her professional pedigree includes Cosmetology, Surgical Technology, and the Culinary Arts. When not working she loves to spend time with family and friends. She lives in Fort Worth.