Discover the Complete History of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer Cutout at SeaWorld
VIAVAL TOURS/Shutterstock.com

Written by Phil Dubley

Published: November 30, 2022

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Rudolph is the first and most important of Santa Claus’ nine reindeer. You might be familiar with the story of his luminous nose, but you may not know its history. We’ll cover how Rudolph came to be, the ideas behind him, and how he became the most famous reindeer in the world.

Reindeer in Norway.

“A New Year’s Present,” an anonymous, 1820 poem, first connected Santa Claus’s sleigh with

reindeer

.

We’ve seen Santa Claus lookalikes since the beginning of time. The idea of a sleigh pulled by reindeer became prominent around the 19th century, though. During this period, both the U.S. and England underwent a renaissance of Christmas celebration after Puritanical opposition to the holiday.

In 1812, Washington Irving said Santa Claus, “Would ride over the tops of trees, in that self-same wagon,” without referencing any animals pulling it.

Around 1820, an anonymous poem titled “A New Year’s Present” first linked reindeer and Santa Claus. These deer appear briefly and in a single line. The poem’s publisher revealed, though, that the author’s mother passed to him indigenous stories involving reindeer.

Only two years later, the famous poem, “The Night Before Christmas” by Professor Clement Clarke Moore, expanded on reindeer mythology. Moore first wrote the story as entertainment for his daughters, which led him to doubt submitting it to a publisher. He considered it silly and kept his authorship a secret, concerned that it would ruin his reputation as a professor.

However, the poem soon became well-known. The eight reindeer he introduced then became the recognized members of the business end of Santa Claus’ sleigh.

Santa Claus’s Crew

Santa Flies Around the World With His Reindeer

“The Night Before Christmas” first named Santa’s eight reindeer.

As stated above, “The Night Before Christmas” identifies eight reindeer leading Santa Claus’s sleigh. Although the poem first gendered the steeds as males, biology has led us to think differently. After mating season  — right before Christmas — male reindeer shed their antlers and a large amount of body weight. Only female reindeer would still have the antlers and the stamina to pull a sleigh during deep winter.

Most believe these reindeer have been anthropomorphized to give them more distinct personalities. Others, though, think the names depend on how much they fit within the poem’s rhythm. The eight original reindeer from Clement Moore’s poem are Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner, and Blitzen. Most of them come from German, with Donner and Blitzen — also known as Dunder and Blixem — meaning “thunder” and “lightning.”

The Beginnings of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

Santa and Reindeer Fly in Front of the Moon

The story of Rudolph added a ninth reindeer to Santa’s sleigh.

Coca-Cola’s holiday ads featuring Saint Nick drinking the soda gained worldwide recognition in 1920. Afterward, Montgomery Ward — a Chicago department store — commissioned a copywriter, Robert L. May, to create an original character to appear in free coloring books for kids.

This campaign managed to drum up business but also helped May to work through some personal trauma. Through his personal experiences with childhood bullying, he envisioned a lonely reindeer with a characteristic red nose who could save Christmas.

What’s the Story Behind Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer?

Robert L. May’s daughter recently told the story’s origins might be even sadder than we think. When Montgomery Ward first asked the copywriter to create this character for their promotional Christmas coloring booklet, Rudolph had a large, red shiny, nose. The ‘normal’ reindeer teased him for it. However, Santa sees on Christmas Eve that Rudolph’s nose is the light he needs to deliver presents successfully to children.

Although its holiday elements are hard to ignore, the original story still comes from May’s experiences. Rudolph gets its inspiration from the Ugly Duckling, an icon of hope for those who grow up as underdogs, with a character being openly scorned by others, but ending up exonerated in a happy ending.

May was down on his luck in real life as well. He later described the mindset he had in 1939, when he received the commission, describing that he was in debt at age 35, still stuck writing catalog copy instead of writing novels, as he had hoped to do.

As he wrote about this lonesome reindeer, May’s wife suffered from a long, life-threatening illness, which kept him from enjoying the festivities. In a Gettysburg Times article, he recalled making his way to work during a chilly day in January, “relieved” that Montgomery Ward had removed its holiday street decorations.

However, Robert L. May never stopped working. He decided he’d write about a reindeer. Images of Santa’s steed-pulled sleigh were everywhere during Christmas. His daughter was also obsessed with Lincoln Park Zoo’s deer. Although the eight deer already had names thanks to “The Night Before Christmas,” May invented a ninth. He thought of several names beginning with “R” for the purposes of alliteration. He considered Rodney, Roderick, Reggy, and Rollo, and finally settled on Rudolph. The original list is now at Dartmouth College, May’s alma mater, in Hanover, N.H.

First, he thought Rollo was “too happy for a reindeer with an unhappy problem.” Reginald was “too sophisticated.” Rudolph “would roll off the tongue nicely,” though.

The idea of the glowing nose was from looking out of his office during winter in Chicago. Lake Michigan’s fog made navigating impossible. May thought of Santa attempting to deliver gifts in such conditions. Some focus group participants said a red nose could connotate alcoholism. Fortunately, though, this didn’t change the writer’s mind.

However, May couldn’t seem to catch a break. His wife’s condition got worse while he put together Rudolph’s story. When she passed away that July, Montgomery Ward considered passing the assignment over to another writer. Nevertheless, Robert continued and later wrote that he head needed Rudolph then more than ever.

About one month later, before he submitted his first draft, he shared it with his daughter and in-laws. By their reaction, Robert L. May said he could finally see his story could become a beacon for those who had been bullied just like him.

When Did Rudolph Become a Worldwide Hit?

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer Cutout at SeaWorld

The 1964 holiday special,

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

, helped cement Rudolph as the well-known phenomenon he is today.

If you heard Gene Autry calling Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer “the most famous reindeer of all,” you’ll probably want to know about the numbers backing him up. A song based on the story topped the charts in 1949, and twenty years later, a stop-motion animated version premiered. Known as the longest-running Christmas TV special, a poll by Hollywood Reporter declared it “the most beloved holiday film.”

When Montgomery Ward first printed it in 1939 as a coloring booklet, 2.4 million copies were distributed for free. They did this without considering how successful it could become. Maxton Publishing Co, a small publishing house, offered to print a hardcover version, allowing it to become a bestseller. However, Rudolph didn’t reach worldwide fame until Johnny Marks, May’s brother-in-law, arranged a musical version for Gene Autry. The tune reached the top of the charts in 1949, giving the story the coverage it needed.

In a way, as Rudolph — the character — saved Christmas by helping Santa deliver gifts on time, the brand helped May’s family go through the motions of hardship.

Robert passed away in 1976 at 71, and his TIME’s obituary pointed out he had received royalties on over 100 Rudolph products, including the song, to which he got the copyright from Ward in 1947. By 1985, the piece had sold 150 million records and over eight million sheet music copies worldwide.

Then along came the puppets from the 1964 TV special, sending bids as high as $10 million. The tune was the first Christmas song that President Nixon’s daughters, Julie and Tricia, learned to sing. This made it a favorite at the White House.

Barbara May Lewis, daughter of Robert L. May and eventual copy editor, mentioned the story would impact her career path. She openly suggested he should refer to Santa’s stomach as “tummy” to her father. She knew the synonym would have a better ring in the following line: “This fog, [Santa] complained, will be hard to get through / He shook his round head. (And his tummy shook too).”

Although the story made Robert enough money to get him out of debt and put his kids through college, the writer believes it provided a more valuable moral lesson for all children. Rudolph became a beacon of acceptance, teaching youngsters that tolerance and perseverance could overcome adversity.

In the decades following publication, the character and the poems Ward wrote about him became a major worldwide hit, landing a song, several movie deals, and every kind of merchandise you could imagine. What started as assembling a holiday spokesperson for a local department store ended up in the genesis of the most famous reindeer in the world.

Even though several writers attempted to introduce members of Rudolph’s family — such as a brother known as Rustie, and a son, Robbie — none managed to equal our red-nosed reindeer’s level of iconicity in pop culture.

Recently, however, the tables seem to have turned. Some viewers of the 1964 TV special observed some “extremely problematic” behavior in the scenes where Rudolph gets harassed because of his nose. The Huffington Post composed a video montage with these comments, racking over 6 million views in almost two weeks.

The Huffington Post and The View weren’t the only ones to debate the issue, and thoughts on the matter go back to 2013 when The New Republic said the story depicted “a dystopia where affection is based on economic worth,” observing society from a grim, Hobbesian point of view.

Barbara told TIME she found these critiques remarkably absurd. In her own words, Lewis said, “The controversy makes no sense to me. The book itself had very little to do with it [the TV special], and it wasn’t lauding bullying.”

Nowadays, nearly 100 Christmases after its first appearance, Barbara May Lewis believes Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is as important as ever. An inspiration to those who feel like they don’t fit in, Rudolph took what alienated him and made good use of it. Lewis thinks the story can teach us not to be let down by our differences and to shine regardless of bullying.

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About the Author

My name is Phil Dubley, I am a Canadian living in Argentina, but tomorrow I could be writing from anywhere else. Throughout my life, I've been in love with nature: plants, animals, people, and everything in it. I have a passion for wild animals - snakes, sharks, and felines have always fascinated me. As for plants, I love succulents. I have a collection of over ten different varieties on my terrace. Also, I use the hemp plant as CBD oil for sleep: it has been the only thing to tackle my insomnia effectively. I want to share all my knowledge about the areas I am passionate about with others who feel the same way. I hope you enjoy my articles, and in each one, you learn something new!

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