Friday, December 25, 2020

The Origins of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer



We’ve all heard the oft-played Christmas ballad about Rudolph, the poor, bullied reindeer who became a hero when Santa gave him the opportunity to lead his sleigh and save Christmas on that fateful, foggy Christmas Eve. But you may not know where the character or story came from.

An old Montgomery Ward catalogue


In 1939, the country was emerging from the Great Depression. Thirty-five-year-old Robert L. May was employed as a copywriter and ad man for the Montgomery Ward department store. He was known as a storyteller and often entertained his coworkers with limericks. Because of these qualities, his boss asked him to write a Christmas story to give away as part of the annual Christmas promotion. May thought a while and decided to model his story after The Ugly Duckling by Hans Christian Anderson, as well as his own history of being a gawky, maligned child. So Rudolph was born. End of story, right?


No. Bob May’s boss wasn’t sold on the idea, largely because having a red nose was often associated with drunkenness, and he didn’t think that would be appropriate for the Christmas promotion. According to an interview May gave in the 1970s, the man asked May if he couldn’t come up with anything better. May knew Rudolph was a winner, so he went to the artists in the Montgomery Ward art department for help. They drew up sketches and put together a package that eventually sold the boss on the idea. That year, they distributed over two million copies of the promotional story.

May's original cover


Okay, so that must be the end of the story, with May having become rich and famous…but no. In fact, May fell on hard times after writing Rudolph. His wife had developed and died from cancer in 1939, during the time May was writing Rudolph’s story. That medical crisis left May a single father deep in debt from his wife’s health expenses. Worse, when Bob May wrote Rudolph’s story, it was Montgomery Ward that benefited from the fame of the red-nosed deer. The  department store, not May, owned the rights and earned the notoriety and money from its distribution.


Drowning in his debt, May approached the store’s CEO in 1946 to ask if they might be able to help him by allowing him even a small portion of the proceeds they earned from May’s Christmas story. In a move not often seen in modern corporations, the rights to Rudolph were reverted to May. He became the sole owner of the story and could do with it as he pleased. The same year, a publisher agreed to reprint and updated version of the story, and it became a best-seller.

Robert L May, author of
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer


May’s sister was married to up-and-coming song-writer Johnny Marks. Johnny set Rudolph to music in 1946, and in 1951, singer Gene Autry recorded the now-famous version. At this point, Rudolph really took off. May quit his job with Montgomery Ward and spent the next seven years stewarding the new-found fame and fortune that came from his beloved Christmas tale. But in 1958, feeling that the Rudolph empire and legacy was in a good place, May returned to Montgomery Wards, where he worked until 1971. 


Bob May also wrote two sequels to Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, as well as four other children’s books before his death in 1976. I do believe, just like his famous reindeer, Mr. Bob May—once a gangly, disliked schoolboy—found his place of love and acceptance in the world through his most famous story.


From us all at Heroes, Heroines, and History—Merry Christmas everyone!

Jennifer Uhlarik discovered the western genre as a pre-teen when she swiped the only “horse” book she found on her older brother’s bookshelf. A new love was born. Across the next ten years, she devoured Louis L’Amour westerns and fell in love with the genre. In college at the University of Tampa, she began penning her own story of the Old West. Armed with a B.A. in writing, she has finaled and won in numerous writing competitions, and been on the ECPA best-seller list several times. In addition to writing, she has held jobs as a private business owner, a schoolteacher, a marketing director, and her favorite—a full-time homemaker. Jennifer is active in American Christian Fiction Writers, Women Writing the West, and is a lifetime member of the Florida Writers Association. She lives near Tampa, Florida, with her husband, college-aged son, and four fur children.


  1. Fascinating! I didn't know anything about the story behind Rudolph. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Merry Christmas! I'm with Linda, I knew nothing about this. Kudos to both Montgomery Ward AND May on transferring those rights back and forth like that! How nice that Mr. May got to benefit instead of going to the poorhouse!