One of the things I love about this time of year is the music: from the uplifting and heart-warming carols in church to the silly seasonal songs in stores and on the radio. Although I can’t hold a tune, that doesn’t stop me from occasionally inflicting my singing on my grand-daughters and dogs. They don’t even seem to mind when I make up my own silly lyrics that vaguely match the tune.
I have always enjoyed the song “Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer” and, as a child, was inspired by its metaphor for overcoming obstacles, embracing differences and recognizing everyone’s unique potential. I was a late blooming ugly duckling, so it really resonated with me during my awkward youth.
The names of Santa's team of eight flying reindeer (Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner and Blitzen) were established in the 1823 poem commonly known as “T’was the Night Before Christmas” by Clement Clarke Moore. It wasn’t until 1939, however, that Rudolph, "the most famous reindeer of all," was added to the line-up.
The tale of Rudolph was invented by Robert L. May, a copywriter at the famous Chicago department store, Montgomery Ward. May took inspiration from his own life to create this famous character, as well as from the story of “The Ugly Duckling,” since he had been teased and bullied as a child for his shyness and small stature.
Robert May was a 34-year-old copywriter for the store in 1939 and, despite the rumblings of war in Europe and the Great Depression still dragging on, Montgomery Ward started planning for Christmas later that year. The store had established the tradition of creating coloring books for children as Christmas promotional items, and usually hired external companies to create these Santa Claus-themed giveaways. As a cost cutting exercise, Montgomery Ward management ask their talented young copywriter May to undertake the task that year.
May agreed, despite his difficulties at home. His young wife Evelyn was losing her battle with cancer, the medical bills were piling up, and he had to care for his 4-year-old daughter Barbara. May really was at the low point of his life when he created the adventure of a misfit reindeer with a glowing red nose.
He began writing the story in rhyming verse and was inspired by the reindeers at the zoo which his daughter loved, as well as the thick fog that rolled off Lake Michigan. His daughter was delighted with his idea of a misfit reindeer who was ostracized because of his luminescent nose, and who then used his physical abnormality to guide Santa’s sleigh and save Christmas. His employers hesitated, however, when he presented the idea to them. At the time, red noses were often associated with the overindulgence of alcohol, and they didn’t want to be seen to be glamorizing drunkenness. May persisted, and following a visit to Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo and some cartoon sketches prepared by one of his colleagues, Montgomery Ward management finally approved the story.
Sadly, Evelyn passed away around the time Rudolph was nearing completion, but May pushed ahead and the short book was finished. During the 1939 Christmas season, 2.4 million copies of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” were distributed. WWII intervened, and paper shortages put further copies on hold. When Rudolph returned in 1946, he became more popular than ever as Montgomery Ward handed out 3.6 million copies of the book that year.
The rights to this story belonged to Montgomery Ward because May was employed by them when he created the tale. Facing a mountain of debt due to his wife's medical bills, in 1947 May convinced the company to turn the copyright over to him which, combined with his new marriage to co-worker Virginia Newton, led to a happier and more affluent phase in May’s life.
Rudolph's popularity soared again when May persuaded his brother-in-law and songwriter Johnny Marks to create a song based on the story, and in 1948 a nine-minute cartoon, featuring the song by Marks, was shown in theaters. In 1949, the "Singing Cowboy" Gene Autry, with prodding from his wife, officially recorded the song. Autry's version of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” sold 2 million copies in its first year and eventually became one of the best-selling songs of all time! Finally, the 1964 NBC television special “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” really solidified the story of Rudolph in popular culture.
The song and merchandise sales made May financially comfortable, but hardly rich. After leaving Montgomery Ward in 1951 to manage the Rudolph commercial empire, May returned to his former employer seven years later. He continued to work as a copywriter for Montgomery Ward until his retirement in 1971.
That is the tale of Rudolph, and of course you know how the story ends: “Then how the reindeer loved him; as they shouted out with glee. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, you'll go down in history!"
God bless America, and MERRY CHRISTMAS!