The Story Behind: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

Every year, I enjoy watching the old favorite Christmas movies from my childhood. One of the best, in my opinion, is the stop motion animation version of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” narrated by Burl Ives as Sam the Snowman. This 1964 movie is based on the song “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” written by Johnny Marks and sung by Gene Autry. He based his song on the short story written by Bob May, which was distributed by Montgomery Ward as a promotional gimmick in 1939. But what was Bob May’s motivation for writing this story? Here is the story behind the story.

As the Great Depression was winding down in 1938, Bob May, an advertising copywriter for Montgomery Ward Department store, was not looking forward to the Christmas holidays. His beloved wife, Evelyn, was dying from cancer and he had to explain to his four-year-old daughter, Barbara, how Mommy wanted to be like other mommies, but she was really, really sick and just couldn’t be like other mommies. So that night, he began to tell her a story about a reindeer who was different from the other reindeer and how being different could be a good thing. Each night, Barbara asked for the reindeer story and each night Bob drew from his life’s experiences, making the story richer and more detailed with each re-telling. He told her about the pain each person felt by being different, and yet at the same time, the joy of finding your place in the world. Since he had no money to buy her a present, Bob carefully wrote out the story and illustrated it as his gift to his daughter. Unfortunately, Evelyn never saw the completed book as she passed away before he had a chance to finish it.

Several days later, Bob attended the mandatory staff Christmas party at Montgomery Ward. His co-workers in the copywriting department, knowing he had been writing a story for his daughter, asked him to read it out loud. It was such a hit that everyone loved the story, wanting to take a copy home to their own children. The head of the company, Mr. Avery, thought that the story would make a wonderful Christmas promotional incentive, so he bought the rights to the tale from the cash-strapped and debt-ridden author. For the next six years, Montgomery Ward gave away copies of the tale of the plucky reindeer to every boy or girl who came into the store.

By then, all the major publishing houses were clamoring for the rights to publish the book when, in an extremely generous gesture, Mr. Avery gave back all the rights to the story to Bob May, making him a very rich man. It was now 1946 and the Rudolph’s story had become a bestseller with numerous toy and product deals. Bob May’s brother-in-law (he had re-married by then), Johnny Marks, offered to write a song based on the book. After offering many popular recording stars a chance to listen to his demo of the song and being turned down by each one, Johnny Marks asked Gene Autry, the cowboy singer, if he would be interested in singing this Christmas tune. Originally not interested, Gene Autry took the demo home and had his wife listen to it. She loved the message of the story in the song and insisted that Gene Autry had to record it. Barely making the cut on his upcoming Christmas album, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” became an instant hit at the 1949 Madison Square Garden rodeo. The song raced to the top of the charts, becoming the second-best selling Christmas song in all times after “White Christmas.”

Over the years, the story of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer has proven to be a popular one in story, song, and film. While it gives a clear messages of how being different can be a blessing and how it takes courage to be different, it also provides the lesson that a sincere gift of love from the heart will double and treble its blessings beyond all expectations. That’s the lesson that Rudolph learned and, now, you did too.


The Chesapeake Public Library owns copies of this popular Christmas tale and many of the spin-offs from it, like “Olive, the Other Reindeer”. We also have the movie as well as the music. It whatever format you like, Happy Holidays from the Chesapeake Public Library!

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