Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer’s Depressing True Origins

By James Brizuela | 3 weeks ago


“Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” is easily one of the most beloved Christmas carols of all time. That’s also the case for the Christmas special of the same name that has been gracing our television sets since 1964. Robert L. May was the original author of the story and his daughter Barabara May Lewis sat down with TIME Magazine to discuss the true said origins of her father’s reindeer story. The entirety of the issues with Rudolph having a red nose was deeply laden with symbolism in regards to May’s wife being sick at the time of its creation.

May was tasked with creating a story for Montgomery Ward, a retail and catalog company. May, at the time, was a copywriter in Chicago and in a bit of debt at the age of 35, when he was first given the assignment. He had been a fan of the Ugly Duckling story, so having Rudolph be the outcast and then vindicated by the story’s end was always a plot point that he had planned to replicate. The fact that Rudolph was going through so much turmoil in his life was directly correlated to how May’s life had been going for him during the time when he wrote it.

On top of being in debt and having to pick up odd copywriting jobs to make ends meet, May’s wife had fallen severely ill. Naturally, May didn’t know what to do about any of it, as he began to write about Rudolph. His wife tragically died after months of fighting her illness, and Montogomery Ward had proposed to give the task to another writer. May refused to let the project go. He believed that he needed this story more than ever as he was grieving the loss of his wife. He buried himself into the story and out came one of the most well-known Christmas stories of all time.

rudolph the red-nosed reindeer origins

Before submitting the draft, he read the story of Rudolph to his daughter Barbara and his in-laws and he claimed, “In their eyes I could see that the story accomplished what I had hoped.” What May didn’t know is how popular his story would become. This was all due to the fact that May’s brother-in-law Jonny Marks wrote the music to the story that Gene Autry eventually sang, catapulting the book and song into superstardom. Montgomery Ward had printed 2.4 million of the story as a soft-covered booklet for free before a publishing house by the name of Maxton Publishing Co. turned it into a hard-cover story that turned into a best-seller. The rest, as they say, is history.

At the time of his death in 1976, Robert L. May had allegedly been receiving royalties from over 100 Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer products as well as the song that Ward allowed him to copyright in 1947. By 1985, the song had accumulated a whopping 150 million record and eight million sheet music copies worldwide. The puppets from the stop-motion film also went up for auction last year nearing $10 million each.

Although the story of Rudolph is symbolic of the illness and death of May’s wife, it is highly regarded as one of the best Christmas stories of all time and the film has been pegged as the “most beloved holiday film.”