Santa’s Ninth Reindeer; The True Story of Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer

When we think of the classic Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer story, thoughts of Rudolph living at the North Pole with Santa and the reindeer team that pulls Santa’s sleigh come to mind. But did you know that this is not how the original story goes? If you have ever wondered how the famous story of Santa’s ninth reindeer came about, take a look at these interesting facts about Rudolph’s beginnings.

Rudolph Was Born In a Department Store

In 1939, during the depths of the great depression, the department store Montgomery Ward wanted to find a way to draw in more customers during the holiday season, while also saving money. Every year they had a Santa’s workshop where kids line up to sit on Santa’s lap and tell him what they want for Christmas. Santa would then give each child an early gift that he magically pulls out of his big red present bag. Typically, this would be a coloring book, but in 1939 there was a ration on paper, so they resorted to finding a less-paper heavy option. Instead of hiring out to a marketing firm to come up with a new gift idea like they had done previously, Montgomery Ward turned to their own advertising department to generate new ideas. One of their copywriters, a 34-year old man, named Robert Lewis May, took up the challenge and went to work on creating a fun Christmas story for the kids. He came up with a character he later named Rudolph. The story May created was an instant hit with kids and parents and that year, Montgomery Ward distributed over 2.4 million copies.

May’s Childhood Influenced Rudolph’s Story

May was a smaller man who endured endless taunting and teasing as a child. He portrayed his childhood experiences as an outcast into Rudolph’s story. He gave Rudolph a physical deformity, a bright shiny red nose, for which he was teased mercilessly by the other reindeer. However, similar to May, Rudolph was able to keep a positive attitude and eventually rise above the teasing, becoming the hero that saved Christmas.

May Had An Extra Motivation

During the time May wrote Rudolph’s story, the country was in the midst of the Great Depression, and May struggled to support his family. He was afraid of losing his job, his wife was dying of cancer, and he couldn’t keep up with all the medical bills. However, he worried the most about his daughter having to watch her mother slowly suffering as cancer consumed her. May decided that he needed to cheer up his daughter and write the story partially for her, with her help. He would come home and run his ideas by her, including the different names he was toying with for his main character. May eventually settled on the name Rudolph because his daughter liked it the best.

May Didn’t Own The Copyrights Until January 1947

Despite the success of the Rudolph story, May didn’t actually own the rights to his story for many years. Montgomery Ward did. As May’s employer at the time he created it, all the intellectual property that he had created was owned by them. Legally, it was a contractor for hire situation. Montgomery Ward didn’t profit directly from selling the story, but it did become so popular that it drew crowds into its stores, which in turn meant more profit for the department store. For roughly 8 years, May didn’t see a dime from his creation. It wasn’t until 1946 when he begged the president of Montgomery Ward to give him the rights to his story. He was finally awarded the copyright to Rudolph in January of 1947, after which he could finally publish his story and start marketing it for profit.

The First Book & Cartoon

After finally getting the rights to his story, May set out to turn it into a children’s book. Maxton Books first published the book Rudolph in 1947 and later published a sequel in 1954 called Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer Shines Again. In 1948, May agreed to have his story made into a cartoon produced by Max Fleischer for the James Handy Corporation. It was shown in theaters across America that Christmas season. The original version didn’t have the song added because it wasn’t created yet, but an updated version of the cartoon with the song was released in 1951.

May’s Brother-in-law Wrote The Song

It was May’s brother-in-law Johnny Marks that first adapted the Rudolph story into song. Although, he changed the story slightly into what we know it to be today. May’s original version had Rudolph living a normal life in the woods somewhere with his parents, but the song changed that to have Rudolph living in the North Pole with Santa. We can credit Johnny Marks for being the one that created the Rudolph song and story that we have loved for the last several decades.

Topping the Billboard

May and Johnny convinced Gene Autry, a famous actor and singer, to produce a commercialized version of the song that they could then release on the radio. The song was an instant hit, topping Billboard’s pop singles chart during Christmas of 1949 and selling 2.5 million copies of the song by 1950. It would eventually sell over 25 million copies and remains to this day, a Christmas classic.