The Origin Story of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: How a 1939 Marketing Gimmick Launched a Beloved Christmas Character

It’s time to for­get near­ly every­thing you know about Rudolph the Red-Nosed Rein­deer…at least as estab­lished by the 1964 Rankin/Bass stop motion ani­mat­ed tele­vi­sion spe­cial.

You can hang onto the source of Rudolph’s shame and even­tu­al tri­umph — the glow­ing red nose that got him bounced from his play­mates’ rein­deer games before sav­ing Christ­mas.

Lose all those oth­er now-icon­ic ele­ments —  the Island of Mis­fit Toys, long-lashed love inter­est Clarice, the Abom­inable Snow Mon­ster of the North, Yukon Cor­nelius, Sam the Snow­man, and Her­mey the aspi­rant den­tist elf.

As orig­i­nal­ly con­ceived, Rudolph (run­ner up names: Rol­lo, Rod­ney, Roland, Rod­er­ick and Regi­nald) wasn’t even a res­i­dent of the North Pole.

He lived with a bunch of oth­er rein­deer in an unre­mark­able house some­where along San­ta’s deliv­ery route.

San­ta treat­ed Rudolph’s house­hold as if it were a human address, com­ing down the chim­ney with presents while the occu­pants were asleep in their beds.

To get to Rudolph’s ori­gin sto­ry we must trav­el back in time to Jan­u­ary 1939, when a Mont­gomery Ward depart­ment head was already look­ing for a nation­wide hol­i­day pro­mo­tion to draw cus­tomers to its stores dur­ing the Decem­ber hol­i­days.

He set­tled on a book to be pro­duced in house and giv­en away free of charge to any child accom­pa­ny­ing their par­ent to the store.

Copy­writer Robert L. May was charged with com­ing up with a hol­i­day nar­ra­tive star­ring an ani­mal sim­i­lar to Fer­di­nand the Bull.

After giv­ing the mat­ter some thought, May tapped Den­ver Gillen, a pal in Mont­gomery Ward’s art depart­ment, to draw his under­dog hero, an appeal­ing-look­ing young deer with a red nose big enough to guide a sleigh through thick fog.

(That schnozz is not with­out con­tro­ver­sy. Pri­or to Caitlin Flana­gan’s 2020 essay in the Atlantic chaf­ing at the tele­vi­sion spe­cial’s explic­it­ly cru­el depic­tions of oth­er­ing the odd­ball, Mont­gomery Ward fret­ted that cus­tomers would inter­pret a red nose as drunk­en­ness. In May’s telling, San­ta is so uncom­fort­able bring­ing up the true nature of the deer’s abnor­mal­i­ty, he pre­tends that Rudolph’s “won­der­ful fore­head” is the nec­es­sary head­lamp for his sleigh…)

On the strength of Gillen’s sketch­es, May was giv­en the go-ahead to write the text.

His rhyming cou­plets weren’t exact­ly the stuff of great children’s lit­er­a­ture. A sam­pling:

Twas the day before Christ­mas, and all through the hills, 

The rein­deer were play­ing, enjoy­ing the spills.

Of skat­ing and coast­ing, and climb­ing the wil­lows,

And hop­scotch and leapfrog, pro­tect­ed by pil­lows.


And San­ta was right (as he usu­al­ly is)
The fog was as thick as a soda’s white fizz


The room he came down in was black­er than ink

He went for a chair and then found it a sink!

No mat­ter.

May’s employ­er wasn’t much con­cerned with the art­ful­ness of the tale. It was far more inter­est­ed in its poten­tial as a mar­ket­ing tool.

“We believe that an exclu­sive sto­ry like this aggres­sive­ly adver­tised in our news­pa­per ads and circulars…can bring every store an incal­cu­la­ble amount of pub­lic­i­ty, and, far more impor­tant, a tremen­dous amount of Christ­mas traf­fic,” read the announce­ment that the Retail Sales Depart­ment sent to all Mont­gomery Ward retail store man­agers on Sep­tem­ber 1, 1939.

Over 800 stores opt­ed in, order­ing 2,365,016 copies at 1½¢ per unit.

Pro­mo­tion­al posters tout­ed the 32-page free­bie as “the rol­lickingest, rip-roaringest, riot-pro­vokingest,  Christ­mas give-away your town has ever seen!”

The adver­tis­ing man­ag­er of Iowa’s Clin­ton Her­ald for­mal­ly apol­o­gized for the paper’s fail­ure to cov­er the Rudolph phe­nom­e­non  — its local Mont­gomery Ward branch had opt­ed out of the pro­mo­tion and there was a sense that any sto­ry it ran might indeed cre­ate a riot on the sales floor.

His let­ter is just but one piece of Rudolph-relat­ed ephemera pre­served in a 54-page scrap­book that is now part of the Robert Lewis May Col­lec­tion at Dart­mouth, May’s alma mater.

Anoth­er page boasts a let­ter from a boy named Robert Rosen­baum, who wrote to thank Mont­gomery Ward for his copy:

I enjoyed the book very much. My sis­ter could not read it so I read it to her. The man that wrote it done bet­ter than I could in all my born days, and that’s nine years.

The mag­ic ingre­di­ent that trans­formed a mar­ket­ing scheme into an ever­green if not uni­ver­sal­ly beloved Christ­mas tra­di­tion is a song …with an unex­pect­ed side order of cor­po­rate gen­eros­i­ty.

May’s wife died of can­cer when he was work­ing on Rudolph, leav­ing him a sin­gle par­ent with a pile of med­ical bills. After Mont­gomery Ward repeat­ed the Rudolph pro­mo­tion in 1946, dis­trib­ut­ing an addi­tion­al 3,600,000 copies, its Board of Direc­tors vot­ed to ease his bur­den by grant­i­ng him the copy­right to his cre­ation.

Once he held the reins to the “most famous rein­deer of all”, May enlist­ed his song­writer broth­er-in-law, John­ny Marks, to adapt Rudolph’s sto­ry.

The sim­ple lyrics, made famous by singing cow­boy Gene Autry’s 1949 hit record­ing, pro­vid­ed May with a rev­enue stream and Rankin/Bass with a skele­tal out­line for its 1964 stop-ani­ma­tion spe­cial.

Screen­writer Romeo Muller, the dri­ving force behind the Island of Mis­fit Toys, Sam the Snow­man, Clarice, et al revealed that he would have based his tele­play on May’s orig­i­nal book, had he been able to find a copy.

Read a close-to-final draft of Robert L. May’s Rudolph the Red-Nosed Rein­deer, illus­trat­ed by Den­ver Gillen here.

Bonus con­tent: Max Fleischer’s ani­mat­ed Rudolph The Red-Nosed Rein­deer from 1948, which pre­serves some of May’s orig­i­nal text.

Relat­ed Con­tent

Hear Neil Gaiman Read A Christ­mas Car­ol Just Like Charles Dick­ens Read It

Hear the Christ­mas Car­ols Made by Alan Turing’s Com­put­er: Cut­ting-Edge Ver­sions of “Jin­gle Bells” and “Good King Wences­las” (1951)

Hear Paul McCartney’s Exper­i­men­tal Christ­mas Mix­tape: A Rare & For­got­ten Record­ing from 1965

– Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo and Cre­ative, Not Famous Activ­i­ty Book. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.


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