The Real Story of that Neon-Nosed Reindeer

Written By Cindy Lefler 12/12/2015

We all know that Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer had a “very shiny nose.” And that he saved Christmas one “foggy Christmas Eve.” And for that he went “down in history.” But do you know how Rudolph came to be?
Rudolph Unplugged

Surprisingly, the story behind Rudolph’s birth is more commercial than sentimental; one of the most beloved Christmas stories of all times was born out of a desire to save money on a holiday promotion for the Chicago-based Montgomery Ward department store. But don’t think this entry is the cynical “commercialization of Christmas” tale of woe, because I promise it has a very Hallmark Hall of Fame happily-ever-after ending – although some cynics would argue otherwise. But more on those cynics later…

First, the story of Rudolph’s “birth”:
Each year, the marketing department of Montgomery Ward department store would buy the rights to a coloring book, and then give away copies during the Christmas retail season as a promotional gimmick. In 1939, the store decided to ask one of their copywriters, 34-year-old Robert L. May, to come up with a Christmas story so that they wouldn’t have to pay for royalties on a copyrighted booklet. And Rudolph was born. But the story that May wrote isn’t exactly the one that has become a beloved holiday TV tradition over the past 50 years (yes, that stop-action TV special with Burl Ives and the “Island of Misfits” first aired in 1964!). In the original work, Rudolph was not one of Santa’s reindeer (or even the offspring of one of Santa’s reindeer), and he didn’t live at the North Pole. He wasn’t an embarrassment to his parents, nor did Santa rebuff him as a youngster when his nose glowed (in fact, Santa didn’t even meet Rudolph until that foggy Christmas Eve). Rudolph was pretty much an ordinary reindeer, living an ordinary life, in an ordinary reindeer village – except, of course, for his extraordinary glowing red nose. He was discovered by Santa while delivering presents to the reindeer’s room on Christmas Eve. In the original story, Santa was worried that the increasing fog would keep him from completing his rounds. Upon seeing Rudolph’s glowing nose, Santa asked him to lead his team through the night, and Rudolph agreed.

After penning the story, which was written in verse similar to “ ’Twas The Night Before Christmas,” May handed the work in to his superiors at Montgomery Ward. At first, the story was rejected because of concern that a red nose would be too closely associated with alcoholism and drunkenness. But after May asked an illustrator friend to draw an adorable version of the lead character, the story was accepted, and Montgomery Ward distributed 2.4 million copies of the Rudolph booklet. The story took off like Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, et al, into the Christmas night, and over the next seven years, about 6 million copies of the book would be distributed.

By 1946, May was a single father, deeply in debt with medical bills from his wife’s terminal illness. Since May created the story while an employee of Montgomery Ward, he did not own the copyright – all royalties belonged to Montgomery Ward. But, in a Christmas twist worthy of one of those sappy TV holiday movie weepers, Montgomery Ward president Sewell Avery turned the copyright over to May in January of 1947, so that all royalties were paid to solely to him. May paid his debts, raised his daughter, and lived a very comfortable life until he passed away in 1976. (See – I told you there’d be a Hallmark Hall of Fame ending!)

Of course, the Montgomery Ward booklet was only the tip of the Rudolph iceberg. While the booklet was popular, the Rudolph phenomenon didn’t really soar until 1949 when May’s brother-in-law, songwriter Johnny Marks, put the story to music. He wrote the words and lyrics, and was lucky enough to have it recorded by popular cowboy crooner Gene Autry. That year, the song sold two million copies, and went on to become one of the best-selling songs of all time (second only to “White Christmas”). Johnny Marks also wrote a few other well-known Christmas songs, including “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” “A Holly Jolly Christmas,” and “Run Rudolph Run.” He also wrote the soundtrack to that 1964 TV Rudolph holiday special. Oh, and here’s a fun fact – just like the composers of many other favorite Christmas tunes (“White Christmas,” “The Christmas Song,” “Silver Bells,” “Winter Wonderland,” etc.), Marks was Jewish.

In 1964, the stop-animation version of Rudolph (with its heavily enhanced storyline) became an instant classic – a tradition in homes every December, including mine. As a child, I waited for the wonderful story of the underdog Rudolph and his outcast friends to become the heroes of holiday season. And when I had kids of my own, the tradition continued. But here’s where the cynics I alluded to earlier creep in. While doing a little research for this blog entry, I was stunned to find that Rudolph has its detractors. As I surfed the ’net, I was amazed at the spate of negative analyses of the show. Some people spew downright hatred for the fable.

One critic calls it a “morally depraved” tale, bemoaning the fact that Rudolph’s parents are ashamed of him, Santa treats him cruelly for being different, and Yukon Cornelius is nothing but a “capitalist pig.” Another denigrator complains that Rudolph is only accepted by his parents, the Jolly Old Man, and peers when he “can be of use to them.” One professor of special education at Long Island University even goes so far as to say that the story of Rudolph promotes bullying because the other reindeer mock him, and tell him to “go home” and that “Santa himself won’t allow Rudolph on his team because he has a disability.” One particularly sardonic blogger simply states the moral of Rudolph is this: “Remember kids, people only love you when you can help them out.” I’m pretty sure that guy is the one who roots for the Grinch to keep Christmas, for Frosty to drain into the sewer system, for the reindeer to keep trampling Grandma, and for that stupid screaming goat to break the stillness of a beautiful Silent Night.

Perhaps I’m less jaded, and therefore see the moral a little differently. I see it as a tale of redemption, forgiveness, and important lessons learned. Redemption of those who were once cruel to Rudolph because he was “different,” and forgiveness of them on the part of Rudolph. I’ve always taken from the show that no one is perfect – not even adults – but everyone has the potential to learn from their mistakes, outgrow prejudices, and make amends. Rudolph’s parents and Santa himself come to understand that what made Rudolph different was the very thing that made him special and wonderful. And Rudolph’s peers come to learn that being different isn’t a bad thing; in fact, there is value in society for those who offer diversity. For Rudolph, who ran away rather than face his own difference, there was the lesson of self-respect and the knowledge that the very thing that makes you different can give you strength and make you special. For me, Rudolph teaches that we all have the ability to mature, to learn compassion, and to reach out in order to understand and appreciate those who are different from us. And that when we do that, the end result is love and mutual respect.

Armenian-Russian author Vera Nazarian contends that “Love is made up of three unconditional properties in equal measure: acceptance; understanding; appreciation. Remove any one of the three and the triangle falls apart. Which, by the way, is something highly inadvisable. Think about it – do you really want to live in a world of only two dimensions? So, for the love of a triangle, please keep love whole.”

I suppose when it comes to the life lessons of Rudolph, you can see that glass of Christmas eggnog as half empty (as do the cynics) or half full. To me – that glass is always half full (with a generous sprinkling of nutmeg on top!). After all, by the end of the show, Santa finds loving homes for all the Misfit Toys, the Elf Foreman agrees to let Hermey open his own dentist practice, Donner apologizes to Rudolph for making fun of his nose, and Yukon Cornelius comes back with a new best friend – the Abominable Snow Monster (who is now a kinder and gentler giant fur-ball). Oh, and I almost forgot — Christmas is saved! And, just like that, everything ends happily ever after – just the way it should.
I wish everyone a great holiday season, and may we all remember to keep that triangle whole!

Peace to all,