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The History of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

By Edited Aug 29, 2016 2 4
"Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer Shines Again"
Credit: Leigh Goessl

Every year as Christmas comes to town many children all over the world are drawn to the story of Rudolph. You'll probably recall he is the famed reindeer with the red nose who accompanies Santa on his sleigh to help guide the way through a very foggy Christmas Eve. While the story has been told for decades, the origin of the tale is not always clear, as several variations have cropped up over time. In fact, Rudolph is not nearly as old a Christmas tale as you might imagine.

How Did Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer Come to Be?

There are at least two to three versions of how Rudolph came to be that have been circulated on the Internet. While variations of the beloved reindeer's origins have differed, they all agree that "Rudolph" was created in the early part of the 20th century. One version tells a tale of Robert L. May, a man grieving as his wife was dying of cancer, writing the story to console his 4-year-old daughter Barbara. An alternate version indicates a manager of Montgomery Ward "caught wind" of his story and paid May to obtain the rights to print it.  This is closer to the truth, but not totally factual either.

In reality, the story was an employer-based assignment. May's wife was ill at the time he was asked by Montgomery Ward to come up with a Christmas story. May was working on the Rudolph story during his wife's illness (she passed away in July 1039). According to his own words in 1976, he finished writing "Rudolph" after her death. [4]

The Creation of Rudolph 

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was brought to life in 1939. The story was indeed penned by May after he was tasked by Montgomery Ward to create a Christmas story the retailer could hand out in booklet form to shoppers during that holiday season. May had a reputation for his children stories and limericks, and the 34-year-old copywriter went to work on crafting a tale per his employer's request. Ultimately, according to Snopes, a website that examines urban legends and separates fact from fiction, he decided on basing the story on an animal and drew inspiration from "The Ugly Duckling" story and his own childhood experiences. [1]

Rodolphe has to hurry up, Christmas is coming soon. ;-)
Credit: Wikimedia Commons User:Lomvi, User:Cornelia-etc./GNU Free Documentation License/Attribution and Share Alike

Just how old is Rudolph? He turned 75 in 2014 and over the years has become "timeless". Over the years this beloved reindeer continues to remain popular through the generations. 

The story most of us are familiar with is also not the same version as the original. For instance, Rudolph did not live at the North Pole, he was discovered while Santa was delivering presents on that foggy night and recruited Rudolph's help once he noticed a glow coming from a window.

More Fun Facts About Rudolph

While there are a few different versions relating to the legend of Rudolph's origin, there are also some fun facts. For instance:

  • In the first year of publish, a whopping 2.4 million copies of the story were distributed by Montgomery Ward — by 1946, 6 million copies had been distributed.
  • Did you know when penning Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer the beloved children's character was almost named Reginald or Rollo? May had considered a number of other names, such as Rodney, Roddy, Romeo, Reggy and Roland before settling on Rudolph.

  • Another lesser known fact was after May created the story of Rudolph, his employer was concerned over the image of the red nose, which was typically associated with drinking and drunkenness. His bosses were also concerned with this "appearance" being showcased during Christmas. May was later able to convince his bosses after a colleague from the store's art department submitted a sketch.
  • Rudolph make his screen début in 1944 in a theatrical cartoon short. The lovable reindeer made his first appearance on the small screen in 1964 with the now famous and classic TV special by Rankin/Bass.
  • May didn't originally get the copyright to Rudolph since it was commissioned by his employer at the time of writing. After his wife's passing, the family struggled financially for many years. In 1947, Montgomery Ward turned ownership of the copyright of the Rudolph story over to him, and it was at that time he was able to collect royalties on his wildly popular tale.
  • After he obtained copyright, May's brother-in-law later set the story to music and this was when the story truly rose to spectacular fame,  according to History.com. [5]

Rudolph's Legacy

Over the decades the now 75-year-old reindeer has brought enjoyment to millions of people through songs, movies, cartoons and other types of television specials. Many of these classics are still aired, along with newer shows, every year. It is also common to see Rudolph portrayed in plays and holiday shows (the below photo is one I took in Alexandria, Virginia a few years back). 

While new Rudolph stories are often varied a bit different and/or built upon May's original creation, they are all based on that beloved reindeer character he wrote back in 1939. And 'ol Rudolph has become one of the most famed and popular Christmas characters of all time.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
Credit: Leigh Goessl

Portrayal of Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer. This show, performed "Santa's Frosty's Follies" by The Metropolitan Fine Arts Center, took place in Alexandria, Virginia during the town's annual Christmas tree lighting ceremony (2011).

Over the years many movies, cartoons and TV shows have been created based on the beloved Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer, story. This version is from 1944.

Rudolph-Inspired Toy from 2009

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer toy
Credit: Mike Mozart (JeepersMedia on Flickr)/CC by 2.0 with Attribution

Along with stories and movies, many Rudolph toys have been produced.

[Related Reading: Why Poinsettias on Christmas]

[ Related Reading: Movie Review: A Christmas Carol - Based on the Story by Charles Dickens (1938) ]



Dec 23, 2014 12:07am
I love Rudolph and the message behind his story. Sometimes (perhaps often?) what we think is our biggest flaw makes us invaluable, unique, and exactly what someone else is hoping for.
Dec 26, 2014 4:40am
Great comment Rose, thanks. Beautifully said!
Dec 26, 2014 7:18pm
Great Article I always wondered where most of the Christmas legends originated from.
Dec 27, 2014 4:15am
Thanks so much 97jetty for commenting. For a long time, I thought Rudolph was an older story than it actually is.
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  1. "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." Snopes. 1/11/2014 <Web >
  2. "The "True" Story of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." About.com. 1/11/2014 <Web >
  3. "Revealed: How Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was invented by a department store ad writer (and was almost named Reginald or Romeo)." Daily Mail. 1/11/2014 <Web >
  4. "Robert May Tells How Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer, Came Into Being." Google News archives - Originally appeared in the Gettysburg Times. 22/12/1975. 1/11/2014 <Web >
  5. " Jan 7, 1947: "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" is the #1 song on the U.S. pop charts." History.com. 1/11/2014 <Web >
  6. "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer Turns 75." History.com. 19/12/2014. 1/05/2015 <Web >

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