“Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” is an enduring Christmas classic. The story began as an advertising gimmick, but soon took on a life of its own as a holiday song and later a Christmas television special. In addition to its nostalgia as a hallmark of the holiday season, “Rudolph” teaches important lessons about acceptance and loving yourself for who you are.
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“Rudolph” was originally created as an advertising campaign for Montgomery Ward. Robert L. May worked for the department store as an advertising copywriter. He created the story of “Rudolph” as a free pamphlet in 1939 that was given away at Montgomery Ward during the busy holiday shopping season.
Creating the Story
May drew upon his own childhood experiences and the classic children’s story "The Ugly Duckling" to create Rudolph. He considered naming Rudolph “Rollo,” but decided that sounded “too jolly.” Then he thought of “Reginald,” but thought that sounded “too British.”
As he wrote, May read stanzas to his daughter Barbara, who was 4 years old. She loved the story, but May’s bosses at Montgomery Ward were concerned about Rudolph’s red nose. They worried about its negative association with being drunk. May convinced them by asking a friend in the art department to sketch some reindeer with red noses. Since they didn't look "drunk," May won them over.
After 10 years of success as a freebie, May’s brother-in-law Johnny Marks decided to turn the story into a Christmas song. Marks was born in Mt. Vernon, New York and studied music in Paris. During World War II he had produced shows for the Army. He turned his attention to writing Christmas songs and went on to become the most prolific holiday songwriter of all time.
St. Nicholas Music Publishing Company
After writing the musical version of “Rudolph,” Marks couldn’t find anyone who was willing to publish it. So he formed his own record company, the St. Nicholas Music Publishing Company, in 1949. He convinced popular recording artist Gene Autry to sing it. Autry actually did not like the song and only agreed to record it after his wife talked him into it. He sang it for the first time at Madison Square Garden in New York City in 1949. “Rudolph” quickly became one of the biggest Christmas hits of all time, selling over 25 million copies. Only Bing Crosby’s version of “White Christmas” has sold more.
May’s original story is a bit different from the holiday classic we know and love today. In May’s version, Rudolph was just an average reindeer. He was not related to Santa’s reindeer, and he lived in the forest, not at the North Pole. In the story, Rudolph’s parents were never ashamed of their son. Santa accidentally discovered Rudolph during a Christmas Eve visit to his home to deliver presents.
The television version of “Rudolph,” based on Marks’ song, was first broadcast in 1964 and has been on every December since then, making it the longest-running Christmas special in television history.