The surprising story behind a Christmas classic


“Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer” has been an iconic Christmas story since it was first introduced to the public in 1939 by Montgomery Ward department store. But the story behind the story will probably surprise you.

Robert L. May, the author of the holiday story, grew up in a prosperous Jewish family in the early 20th century, before the Great Depression took everything.

Once married, along with his wife, Evelyn, May moved to Chicago where he took a job as a copywriter for Montgomery Ward’s famous catalogs.

Montgomery Ward gave customers a free holiday children’s book every Christmas, but it was costly; so, in 1939, the company asked Bob to write that year’s book. He was also instructed to “make it an animal story.”

Remembering how much his four-year-old daughter, Barbara, loved the deer at Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo, May considered how Santa’s sleigh was pulled by reindeer, and the story began to take shape.

He also began talking with his wife about her childhood after she told him how painfully shy she had been. When she recalled how other kids cruelly made fun of her and excluded her from their games, May thought about how his story could relate to that experience.

According to a report in the Washington Examiner, he remembered thinking, “Suppose he (the story’s hero) were an underdog, a loser, yet triumphant in the end. But what kind of loser? Certainly, a reindeer’s dream would be to pull Santa’s sleigh.”

As he contemplated the story while staring out an office window, a thick fog from Lake Michigan obscured his view.
“Suddenly I had it! A nose! A bright red nose that would shine through fog like a spotlight,” May said.

He then came up with the name Rudolph, and a star was born: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

Unfortunately, his boss hated the story. He said, “For gosh sakes, Bob, can’t you do better than that?”

Refusing to give up on Rudolph, May asked a friend in the company’s art department to draw a deer with a big red nose. They took the design to the boss, and he promptly reversed his previous opinion.

While writing the story, May’s wife died from cancer.

Devastated, he recalled, “I needed Rudolph now more than ever. Gratefully, I buried myself in the work. Finally, in late August, it was done.”

Bob read the finished work to Barbara and Evelyn’s parents. “In their eyes, I could see that the story accomplished what I had hoped,” he recalled.

Montgomery Ward gave away 2.5 million copies that year, and by 1946, that number had grown to 6 million.

A few years later, May’s brother-in-law, Johnny Marks, wrote the famous “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” song. Shockingly, Bing Crosby, Dinah Shore, and others passed on it. Cowboy singer Gene Autry finally put it on vinyl just to make his wife stop pestering him about it, but it was only a “B Side” to another holiday song.

When “Rudolph” became America’s number one hit song for Christmas week of 1949, selling 2.5 million copies that year, Autry changed his mind. In fact, “Rudolph” eventually became the second best-selling holiday record behind Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas.”

Countless books, TV specials, and cartoons have now told the story, and Rudolph acquired his very own postage stamp in 2014.

May, who remarried and had five more children, passed away in 1976.

He used to say, “My reward is knowing that every year, when Christmas rolls around, Rudolph still brings happiness to millions, both young and old.”

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