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A History of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

December 20, 2023

Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer - 1939 edition (Smithsonian Institution)

By Guy Scott

Chicago’s Montgomery Wards Department Store decided to write a Christmas Storybook for 1939, featuring a new character called Rudolph. Though it was during the great depression, one of the highlights for the Christmas season was for parents to take their children to large department stores (such as Montgomery Wards) to visit Santa, sit on his knee and receive a gift. For many years, the Montgomery Wards Santa reached into his sack to give away a specially printed Christmas colouring book. The store wanted to do something different, so it gave one of its copyrighters, 34-year-old Robert L. May, the job of coming up with a story. May was said to have been taunted as a child, because he was shy and small in stature. It is believed that the story of being ostracized game from his own personal experiences. May created Rudolph with similar problems, but in the end rises above his problems and is transformed.

Originally May wrote the story as rhyming verse which his 4-year-old daughter Barbara loved. Initially, store owners thought a red nose may be inappropriate as a red nose was associated with drinking. However, after illustrations surfaced this suggestion was dismissed and the story was a new gimmick for promotions, which was an immediate success. The story book of Rudolph soon filled Santa’s sack as a give-away.

Upon release in 1939, 2.4 million copies of the story were distributed. Due to wartime paper shortages, minimal copies were printed over the coming years. However, by 1946 it was estimated that a total of 6 million copies had been given away. The story later went on to be translated into 25 languages. Rudolph was created during a difficult time for May, as his wife had a terminal illness (cancer) and died. Writing Rudolph was a distraction that brought him and his young daughter Barbara together in a magical way. May changed the story as he wrote it depending on Barbara’s reaction. May received no royalties for Rudolph because copyright was held by Montgomery Wards for whom he was an employee only. May was snowed under with medical and other bills. He went to Montgomery Wards to seek release of the rights to Rudolph, which was granted in 1947. May was able to transform his financial circumstances, as he had the story printed commercially the same year. The following year, a nine minute cartoon was shown in theatres. Soon after, May’s brother-in-law Johnny Marks, a songwriter, developed a song to go with the story.

Marks’ story, ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was recorded and made famous by Gene Autry in 1949. It sold two million copies in the first year. It became a Christmas classic and one of the best selling songs of all time. In 1964, Burl Ives narrated a TV special about Rudolph, which is still popular today.

May secured a good life from Rudolph. He quit his copywriting job in 1951 to concentrate on Rudolph, yet returned a number of years later and stayed until his retirement in 1971. He died in 1976.

Rudolph came along more than 100 years after Santa’s eight flying reindeer made their debut in T’was the Night Before Christmas. Although loved and cherished by his family, Rudolph was a misfit, teased and later ostracized by the reindeer community, because of his unusual glowing red nose. The story unfolds with Santa discovering Rudolph by accident, when he noticed a glow emanating from Rudolph’s room while delivering presents to his home on Christmas eve. As the thickening fog was already the cause of several accidents and delays, Santa was worried that he might not be able to complete his rounds. Rudolph was recruited as the light of the way, leading Santa’s reindeer team to fulfill all deliveries. The message of Rudolph proved popular: That is, a perceived liability is often an asset waiting to be discovered!

Twas the day before Christmas, and all through the hills

The reindeer were playing… enjoying the spills

Of skating and coasting, and climbing the willows…

And hop-scotch and leap-frog (protected by pillows)

While every so often they’d stop to call names

At one little deer not allowed in their games:

“Ha ha! Look at Rudolph! His nose is a sight!”

“It’s red as a beet! Twice as big! Twice as bright!”

While Rudolph just wept. What else could he do?

He knew that the things they were saying were true!

Where most reindeers’ noses are brownish and tiny,

Poor Rudolph’s was red, very large, and quite shiny.

In daylight it dazzled (The picture shows that!)

At night time it glowed, like the eyes of a cat.

And putting dirt on it just made it look muddy.

(Oh boy was he mad when they nicknamed him ‘Ruddy’)

Although he was lonesome, he always was good…

Obeying his parents, as good reindeer should.

That’s why on this day Rudolph almost felt playful:

He hoped that from Santa (soon driving his sleighful

Of presents and candy, dollies and toys

For good little animals, good girls and boys)

He’d get just as much… and this is what pleased him

As the happier, handsomer reindeer who teased him

As night, and a fog, hid the world, like a hood

He went to bed hopeful; he knew he’d been good!

While way, way up North on this same foggy night,

Old Santa was packing up his sleigh for its flight

‘This fog,’ he complained, ‘will be hard to get through”

He shook his round head (And his tummy shook too)

“Without any stars or a moon as a compass,

This extra dark night is quite likely to swamp us.

To keep from collisions, we’ll have to fly slow.

To keep our direction, we’ll have to fly low.

We’ll steer by the street lamps and houses tonight

In order to finish before it gets light.

Just think how the boys’ and girls’ faith would be shaken,

If we didn’t reach ‘em before they awaken!

Come Dasher! Come Dasher! Come Prancer and Vixen!

Come Comet! Come Cupid! Come Donner and Blitzen!

Be quick with your suppers! Get hitched in a hurry!

You, too, will find fog a delay and a worry!

And Santa was right (as he usually is)

The fog was as thick as a soda’s white fizz.

Just not getting lost required all Santa’s skill,

With street signs and numbers more difficult still.

He tangled in tree tops again and again,

And barely missed hitting a tri-motored plane.

He still made good speed, with much twisting and turning

As long as the street lights and house lights were burning.

At each house, first noting the people who live there,

He’d quickly select the right presents to give there.

By midnight, however, the last light had fled.

For even big people have then gone to bed.

Because it might wake them, a match was denied him.

(Oh my, how he wished for just one star to guide him!)

Through dark streets and houses old Santa fared poorly.

He now picked the presents more slowly, less surely.

He was really worried, for what would he do,

If folks started waking before he was through?

The air was still foggy, the night dark and drear,

When Santa arrived at the home of the deer.

A ledge that he tripped on while seeking the chimney

Gave Santa a spill, and a painfully skinned knee.

The room he came down in was blacker than ink,

He went for a chair and then found it a sink!

The first reindeer bedroom was so very black,

He tripped on the rug and fell flat on his back.

So dark that he had to move close to the bed,

And squint very hard on the sleeping deer’s head,

Before he could choose the right kind of toy.

(A doll for a girl, or a train for a boy.)

But all this took time, and filled Santa with gloom,

While he slowly groped toward the next reindeer’s room.

The door he’d just opened… when to his surprise,

A dim but quite definite light met his eyes.

The light wasn’t burning; the glow came instead,

From something that lay at the head of the bed.

And there lay… but wait now! What would you suppose?

The glowing (you’ve guessed it) was Rudolph’s Red Nose!

So this room was easy, this one little light

Let Santa pick quickly, the gifts that were right.

How happy he was, till he went out the door…

The rest of the house was as black as before!

So black that it made every step a dark mystery.

And then… came the greatest idea in all history!

He went back to Rudolph and started to shake him

(Of course very gently) in order to wake him.

And Rudolph could scarcely believe his own eyes!

You can just imagine his joy and surprise

At seeing who stood there, so real and so near,

While telling the tale we’ve already told here:

Poor Santa’s sad tale of distress and delay…

The fog and the darkness, and losing the way…

The horrible fear that some children might waken

Before his complete Christmas trip had been taken.

“And you,” he told Rudolph, “may yet save the day”

“Your wonderful forehead may yet pave the way”

For a wonderful triumph! It actually might!

(Old Santa, you notice, was extra polite

To Rudolph regarding his “wonderful forehead,’

To call it a ‘big, shiny nose’ would sound horrid!)

“I need you,” said Santa “to help me tonight,

To lead all my deer on the rest of our flight!”

And Rudolph broke out in such a big grin,

It almost connected his ears and his chin!

A note for his folks he dashed off in a hurry.

“I’ve got to help Santa,” he wrote. “Do not worry!”

Said Santa: “My sleigh, I’ll bring down to the lawn

You’d stick in the chimney” and flash… he was gone!

So Rudolph pranced out through the door, very gay

And took his proud place at the head of the sleigh.

The rest of the night… well what would you guess?

Old Santa’s idea was a brilliant success.

And “brilliant” was almost no word for the way

That Rudolph directed the deer and the sleigh.

In spite of the fog, they flew quickly… and low

And made such use of the wonderful glow

From Rudolph’s er… forehead at each intersection,

That not even once did they lose their direction!

While as for the houses and streets with a sign on ‘em,

They merely flew close, so that Rudolph could shine on ‘em.

To tell who lived there, and just what to give whom,

They’d fly by each window and peek in the room.

Old Santa knew always which children were good,

And minded their parents and ate as they should.

So Santa selected the gift that was right,

While Rudolph’s… er … forehead just gave enough light.

It all went so fast, that before it was day,

The very last present was given away…

The very last stocking was filled to the top…

Just as the sun was preparing to pop.

The sun woke the reindeer in Rudolph’s home town…

They found the short message that he’d written down…

Then gathered outside to await his return,

And they were excited, astonished to learn,

That Rudolph, the ugliest deer of them all,

(Rudolph the Red-nose, … bashful and small…

The funny-faced fellow they’d always called names,

And practically never allowed in their games)

Was now to be envied by all, far and near,

For no greater an honor can come to a deer

Than riding with Santa and guiding his sleigh

The number-one job on the number-one day!

The sleigh and its reindeer, soon came into view,

And Rudolph still led them, as downward they flew.

Oh boy, was he proud as they came to a landing,

Right where his handsome playmates were standing.

These bad deer who used to nothing but tease him

Would now have done anything only to please him

They felt even sorrier they had been bad,

When Santa said: “Rudolph, I never have had

A deer quite so brave or so brilliant as you,

At fighting through black fog, and at guiding me through.

By you last night’s journey was actually bossed.

Without you, I’m certain we’d all have been lost.

I hope you’ll continue to keep us from grief,

On future dark trips as Commander-in-Chief!”

But Rudolph just blushed, from his head to his toes,

Until his whole fur was red as his nose!

The crowd first applauded, then started to screech…

“Hurray for our Rudolph” and “We want a speech!”

But Rudolph was bashful, despite being a hero!

And tired! (His sleep on the trip totalled zero.)

So that’s why his speech was just brief and not bright…

“Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.”

… Whenever it’s foggy and grey,

It’s Rudolph the Red-nose who guides Santa’s sleigh.

Be listening this Christmas! (But don’t make a peep…

‘cause that late at night, children should be asleep!)

The very first sound, that you’ll hear on the roof

(Provided there’s fog) will be Rudolph’s small hoof.

And soon after that (if you’re still as a mouse),

You may hear a “swish” as he flies ‘round the house,

And give enough light to give Santa view

Of you and your room. And when they’re all through….

You may hear them all call, as they drive out of sight:
“Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!”

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