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The Family Grows Again: Rudolph!

Robert May's Contribution

The Santa Claus family was increased by one in the years before World War II. Rudolph, the ninth reindeer, with a red and shiny nose, was invented in 1939 by Robert L. May, an advertising writer for the Montgomery Ward Company.

May’s boss wanted to give away a special book to children during the Christmas season. In January 1939 May started to work. Although the boss first rejected the story of Rudolph, May persisted. May completed it in late August, Denver Gillen illustrated it, Montgomery Ward printed it, and 2,500,000 copies were distributed that Christmas.

When Wards reissued the book in 1946, more than 3,500,000 copies were distributed. That same year, Sewell Avery, chairman of Montgomery Ward, gave the copyright to Bob May.

The next year, a children’s book publisher brought out a new edition, and sold over 100,000 in two years.

In 1949, Johnny Marks wrote the song about Rudolph. Gene Autry recorded it; it went to #1 on the Hit Parade and sold 2,000,000 copies. The film version first aired in 1964, and the story and song have been translated into over 25 languages.

In 1989, Wards reissued a Golden Anniversary Edition, a facsimile of the original 1939 edition, published by Applewood Books (see above).

Robert May graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Dartmouth College in 1926 and joined Montgomery Ward in 1936. A humble, soft-spoken man, he was gratified that children had so responded to his little story. May referred to Rudolph as ‘my generous son,’ claiming that the reindeer enabled him to send his six children to college. In 1958 May donated the original manuscript to the Baker Library at Dartmouth College, which now houses the Robert L. May Collection. May left Wards in 1951 to manage Rudolph’s career, but returned to the company in 1958.He retired in 1970 and died in 1976.

Montgomery Ward went out of business in early 2001. Because the poem is still under copyright it is not reproduced here. Reproductions of the 1939 original are available from used-book sellers on the World Wide Web.

Of course, Robert May's depiction of a reindeer was not the first.  In 1821, a small, sixteen-page booklet appeared, titled A New Year’s Present for the Little Ones from Five to Twelve, Part III. It was about Christmas, and was the first to picture Santa Claus in a sleigh drawn by a reindeer.

Santa_And_Reindeer_1909.gif (547839 bytes)This postcard (at right) was mailed in 1909.

The Story Behind The Story

The Urban Legends Reference Page, by Barbara and David P. Midelson, has a good article on the background concerning the creation of this story, which I recommend. 

There is a story concerning Robert May which is circulating on the Internet titled Rudolph that Amazing Reindeer. No credit for authorship is usually attached, but the author was Stanley A. Frankel (1919-1999). The story was originally titled "The Story Behind Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," and appeared in Good Housekeeping, December, 1989 (p. 126)

You can ready Mr. Frankel's article on his web site: Rudolph that Amazing Reindeer (The article is about half-way down the page).

On the topic of flying reindeer, generally, one person to talk to is Portland, Oregon Zoo Director Tony Vecchio, who is compiling scientific data for his research on reindeer flight. His website, World Reindeer Sightings, contains tips on sighting reindeer, a world map to see where other reindeer have already been sighted, a press release, and a video interview with Mr. Vecchio. There is also an email address for reporting sightings!

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

By Johnny Marks Copyright, 1949

The poem by Robert May became a song in 1949 by John Marks, one of the most prolific and popular modern composers of Christmas songs. Because the song is still under copyright, it is not reproduced here. The story about the song is best told by Professor (Emeritus) William Studwell.

Rudolph lights up season as year's top Christmas Carol

Professor William Studwell
Northern Illinois University, November 23, 1999

DEKALB—The most famous reindeer of all--who incidentally was born in Chicago, not the North Pole--is celebrating the 50th anniversary of his theme song this Christmas.

  To mark the occasion, William Studwell, a professor at Northern Illinois University, has named Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer the 1999 Christmas Carol of the Year. Studwell is the nation’s leading expert on Christmas carols and various other musical genres, ranging from the obscure and under appreciated to the widely popular.

  Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer went down in history back in 1949 when Johnny Marks wrote the famous Christmas tune. But the character was actually created 10 years earlier by Marks’ brother-in-law, Robert L. May, for a Chicago-based Montgomery Ward advertising campaign, making the reindeer a decade older than his famous theme song.

  Although it was May who spun a best-selling tale based on the reindeer, it was Marks who guided Rudolph into the national spotlight.

  The charming story coupled with Marks’ catchy lyrics and music, as well as the talent of the famous singing cowboy, Gene Autry, helped Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer fly to the top of the music charts. Marks went on to write other holiday favorites, including Most Wonderful Time of the Year, Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree and Holly Jolly Christmas.

  "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer became the biggest Christmas hit since 1942’s White Christmas, and Rudolph became the first significant new holiday character since Santa Claus and his elves," Studwell said.

  "Rudolph is a cute and loveable character," he said. "People like him because he was the ‘under-reindeer’—the lowest on the pecking order. But he overcame that to become a superhero of Christmas."

  "Rudolph’s brightly-lit nose and heroic stance have brought him to the forefront of Christmas novelties. An explosion of Christmas merchandise hit the markets after Rudolph hit the airwaves," Studwell said. "Rudolph’s fame also sparked the trend for the creation of other holiday characters, such as Frosty the Snowman and the Grinch. Even the schoolyard parodies of the song indicate that Rudolph has indeed "arrived" in everyday culture," Studwell said.

  "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer really got the conspicuous consumption of Christmas merchandise going. It was the first great novelty song after World War II—people were ready for something new. The song came out during a time of new prosperity—people had money to spend. And this trend has continued with the introduction and merchandising of other Christmas characters," Studwell said.

  In addition to having a song written for him, Rudolph also enjoyed fame as an actor. His first stint, which has long been forgotten, was a 9-minute cartoon in 1944. Rudolph’s big break came in 1964 when he starred in his own Christmas special with a soundtrack written by Marks. Although that show has since become a holiday television tradition, Rudolph's subsequent specials, Rudolph’s Shiny New Year and Rudolph and Frosty, haven’t been nearly as popular.

  Studwell’s expertise on Christmas carols began in 1972 when he researched Oh, Holy Night to create a pamphlet of the song as a gift for a family member. Since that time, Studwell has become a leading expert on Christmas music and has penned several books on the topic, including

See also: William E. Studwell and Dorothy E. Jones, Publishing Glad Tidings: Essays on Christmas Music (New York: Haworth Press, 1998).

Professor Studwell also provided assistance in preparing the text notes to the Millennia Collection of Christmas carols.

  In 1986, Studwell began naming a Christmas Carol of the Year to share the little-known stories behind the favorite holiday classics and keep the songs in the spotlight.

This article was posted on the NIU web site. Professor William Studwell retired from Northern Illinois University, and passed away in 2010. See: William Emmett Studwell.


The Urban Legends page has other articles about Santa's Reindeer, including:

Does Santa have a reindeer named 'Donner'? [No]

Are Santa's reindeer all female? [Yes]

Did Coca-Cola create the modern image of Santa Claus? [No]


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Collections of Christmas Carols & Poetry
Compiled and Edited by
Douglas D. Anderson

Victorian Visions
A Christmas Poetry Collection

Divinely Inspired
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The Bridegroom Cometh
Poetry For The Advent

Other books by Doug Anderson

Once A Lovely Shining Star

A Christmas Poetry Collection

So Gracious Is The Time

A Christmas Poetry Collection

How Still The Night

The Christmas Poems of Father Andrew, S.D.C.

 Father and Daughter

Christmas Poems by Frances and William Havergal

Now, Now The Mirth Comes

Christmas Poetry by Robert Herrick

What Sudden Blaze Of Song

The Christmas Poems of Rev. John Keble

 A Holy Heavenly Chime

The Christmastide Poems of Christina Georgina Rossetti

All My Heart This Night Rejoices

The Christmas Poems of Catherine Winkworth

A Victorian Carol Book

Favorites from the 19th Century —
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Luther's Passional

Luther's Writings on Prayer: A Selection

Devotions for the Advent – 2009

The Lenten Sermons of Martin Luther, Second Edition

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