Balsam wreaths and visions of sugarplums had barely faded in the first weeks of 1939, but thoughts inside the Chicago headquarters of retail giant Montgomery Ward had already turned to the next Christmas 11 months away. The retailer had traditionally purchased and distributed coloring books to children as a holiday promotion, but the advertising department decided it would be cheaper and more effective instead to develop its own Christmas-themed book in-house.
The assignment fell to Robert May, a copywriter with a knack for turning a limerick at the company’s holiday party. The adman, however, had difficulty summoning up holiday cheer, and not just because of the date on the calendar. Not only was the United States still trying to shake the decade-long Great Depression while the rumblings of war grew once again Europe, but May’s wife was suffering with cancer and the medical bills had thrown the family into debt. Sure, he was pursuing his passion to write, but churning out mail order catalog copy about men’s shirts instead of penning the Great American Novel was not what he had envisioned himself doing at age 33 with a degree from Dartmouth College.
Given the assignment to develop an animal story, May thought a reindeer was a natural for the leading role (not to mention that his 4-year-old daughter, Barbara, loved the reindeer every time she visited the zoo). As he peered out at the thick fog that had drifted off Lake Michigan, May came up with the idea of a misfit reindeer ostracized because of his luminescent nose who used his physical abnormality to guide Santa’s sleigh and save Christmas. Seeking an alliterative name, May scribbled possibilities on a scrap of paper—Rollo, Reginald, Rodney and Romeo were among the choices—before circling his favorite. Rudolph.
As May worked on “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” through the summer, his wife’s health worsened. She passed away in July 1939. Now a widower and a single father, May refused the offer of his boss to give the assignment to someone else. “I needed Rudolph now more than ever,” he later wrote. Burying his grief, May finished the story in August.
The 89 rhyming couplets in “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” borrow from Clement Clarke Moore’s “A Visit from St. Nicholas” right from the story’s opening line: “Twas the day before Christmas, and all through the hills/The reindeer were playing…enjoying the spills.” Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale “The Ugly Duckling” also inspired the storyline as did May’s own childhood when he endured taunts from schoolmates for being small and shy. “Rudolph and I were something alike,” the copywriter told Guideposts magazine in January 1975. “As a child I’d always been the smallest in the class. Frail, poorly coordinated, I was never asked to join the school teams.”
In 1949, songwriter Johnny Marks, who happened to be May’s brother-in-law, set Rudolph’s story to music. After Bing Crosby reportedly turned down the chance, singing cowboy Gene Autry recorded the song, which sold 2 million copies in the first year and remains one of the best-selling tunes of all time.