As a part of their Christmas promotional during the 1930s, the Santa in Montgomery Ward gave away coloring books to the children each December. In 1939 they decided to do something different and create a small story book instead. Robert L. May, a copywriter at Montgomery Ward in Chicago was known among his co-workers as being good at limericks and children’s stories and was chosen to write a Christmas poem for that year’s promotional giveaway booklet. Illustrations were assigned to Denver Gillen, a friend of May’s working in the art department.
May came up with the idea of a shiny-nosed reindeer teased by other reindeer and never invited to play, until asked by Santa to guide his sleigh on Christmas Eve. Gillen spent hours watching reindeer at the zoo and making playful sketches of their behavior. In the original story idea Rudolph was not a North Pole reindeer but an ordinary reindeer living somewhere along Santa’s route. Delivering presents one foggy Christmas Eve, Santa saw a red glow from Rudolph’s window. With the fog growing thicker, Santa decided to ask the red-nosed reindeer to fly the lead and guide his sleigh. Early in the poem’s development May had other ideas for the reindeer’s name, first coming up with Rollo, and when that was turned down by store executives, considering Reginald. That name too was nixed, and struggling to preserve alliteration with the letter ‘R’ they settled on Rudolph, a suggestion from May’s four-year-old daughter.
For the Christmas season of 1939 Montgomery Ward printed May’s poem “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and distributed it to children visiting Santa Claus in their stores. That first year the store gave out 2.4 million copies of the poem and by 1946 the number had risen to more than six million copies. Then a major publisher sought to purchase the rights from Montgomery Ward and print an updated version of the booklet. In 1947, the Corporate President of Montgomery Ward handed over the copyright to Robert May.
The book became a bestseller followed by the song adaptation written by Johnny Marks. To many established recording artists, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” held no appeal and was turned down by one after another, including Bing Crosby and Dinah Shore. The song was recorded finally by the singing cowboy, Gene Autry. Released in 1949, the recording was a phenomenal success, selling more records than any other Christmas song, with the exception of “White Christmas.” Since the original Gene Autry recording more than 300 recordings have been made of the song, more than eighty million records sold.
In an interesting sidelight, according to sociologists “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” is the only new addition to the folklore of Santa Claus over the past 100 years or more.
Rudolph, the red-nosed reindeer
had a very shiny nose.
And if you ever saw him,
you would even say it glows.
All of the other reindeer
used to laugh and call him names.
They never let poor Rudolph
join in any reindeer games.
Then one foggy Christmas Eve
Santa came to say:
“Rudolph with your nose so bright,
won't you guide my sleigh tonight?”
Then all the reindeer loved him
as they shouted out with glee,
Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer,
you’ll go down in history!