Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer - History

History of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer

Although the original eight reindeer were embedded in the popular vision of Christmas as far back in the 1800s, there is one that is far more recent, despite being arguably more popular than any of them. After all, as the song says, he is “The most famous reindeer of all”.

Rudolph, the uniquely nosed reindeer who saved Christmas and earned respect from those who had seen him as a freak, is consistently one of the most popular Christmas stories, appearing in dozens of adaptations and works. However, it was over a century after the creation of the original reindeer that Rudolph came into being. And the reason for it was a marketing stunt.

In 1939, Montgomery Ward appointed an employee, Robert May, to create a coloring book for a Christmas giveaway. Despite the problems in his life (his wife dying of cancer and a four-year-old child to consider), he drew on his memories of what it was like being shy, short, and awkward in his youth. And by doing so he came up with the story of a misfit reindeer. The story he wrote, created in rhyming verse using his daughter as a sounding board and critic of kids’ enjoyment, was about a character he ended up naming Rudolph, a reindeer with a red glowing nose.

As strange as it may sound today, when he first showed the story to his superiors, they were hesitant about using it. At the time, red noses were a shorthand association with drunkenness. While visiting a zoo, May and a coworker sketched pictures of reindeer and the story, and the charming imagery was what convinced the employers to give it a shot.

Two printings, in ’39 and later in '46 distributed over 6 million copies. Soon after, May was given the rights to the work by his boss (since as an employee of Montgomery Ward the work had belonged to them up until that point). Soon after, May talked his brother-in-law, a songwriter, to turn the prose into a song. At first no artists would record it, most citing concerns about altering or competing with the standard Santa Claus stories. But eventually, country music star Gene Autry recorded a version that has become one of the bestselling songs of all time.

Other notable versions of the story are the stop motion animated Rankin-Bass special, which endures with its imagery until today, and several other cartoon versions, as well as at least one full animated movie. Even among people who don’t always remember the names of the other reindeer, Rudolph is guaranteed to get instant recognition.

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