The real story of Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer

Who created Rudolph and how did he grow into the beloved Christmas figure we now know? Photo: Rankin & Bass Christmas Special Screen Shot

FORT WORTH, Texas December 11, 2013 — It’s that time of year again. The elves are finishing their yearly quota of toys and Santa is readying his sleigh for Christmas Eve. His eight reindeer have been in training for their annual ride throughout the world in just one night.

Eight reindeer? You know Dasher and Dancer and Prancer and Vixen, Comet and Cupid and Donner and Blitzen. But what about Rudolph?

Classic Santa with eight reindeer...  no Rudolph

Classic Santa with eight reindeer… no Rudolph

In 1823 Clement C. Moore created the Santa Claus we know and love in the classic poem A Visit from St. Nicholas. The verse mentions eight tiny reindeer but there is no mention of a ninth that sports a glowing red nose.

Where did Rudolph come from and how did he come to be part of Christmas? No, not the script for the TV special bearing his name. But who created Rudolph and how did he grow into the beloved Christmas figure we now know?

An email has made its way around the internet containing the “true” story of how the lead puller of Santa’s sleigh came into existence through the artistic endeavor of Robert L. May. It is a heartwarming story of love, heartbreak, tragedy and triumph. Does it sound almost too good to be true? Part of it is according to May himself, affirms David Emery of and

The heart of the inaccurate story asserts that May’s wife Evelyn died of cancer in December 1938 and that this battle had stripped them of all their savings. The bereaved father couldn’t even afford a Christmas present for their young daughter Barbara.

The little girl wanted to know why her mother had to be different than other mothers. So he decided to write a story to bring her comfort and hope. From this May supposedly created a misfit reindeer that had a shiny red nose.

But in an interview given to the Gettysburg Times in 1975, May states that Rudolph’s conception began on a cold January day in 1939. He was a copywriter with Montgomery Ward in Chicago when his boss asked May to come up with a character and story for the annual Christmas coloring book

Original book by Bob May

Original book by Bob May

The supervisor suggested an animal character similar to storybook figure Ferdinand the Bull. May agreed.

Evelyn May did have cancer and four year old Barbara did inspire him. The little girl was fascinated with the deer she saw at the zoo. It was this enchantment, not her mother, that inspired May to choose a reindeer for the main character of his parable.

In August of 1939, barely a month after his wife died, May finished the final draft of his story.

“I called Barbara and her grandparents into the living room and read it to them,” he later wrote. “In their eyes I could see that the story accomplished what I had hoped.”

This is the story accepted by May’s supervisor and made into the coloring books given to children who visited the store that Christmas.

Writer David Emery of tells of the alternate version of this story. He compared May’s account and the version of Ace Collins, author of Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas. This is the erroneous report making its way around cyberspace now.   

Emery writes that “…while I’m sure it accurately portrays some of the emotions in play, it directly contradicts Bob May’s own account of what transpired.” When asked about his version Collins states his version came to him by a Montgomery Ward PR person and that it is “’….as truthful as there is.’”

May’s own children have been asked about the origins of the beloved little reindeer. Their version of Rudolph’s story has always matched their father’s account exactly.

After World War II the license for Rudolph was in great demand. But since May created the story as an employee of Montgomery Ward he didn’t own the copyright. It belonged to the department store. Then in January of 1947 May told company president Sewell Avery about his continued debt due to his wife’s illness.

Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer by Gene Autry

Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer by Gene Autry

At this, Avery handed over the copyright and gave May financial security.

Rudolph’s parable was then commercially printed and made into a nine minute cartoon.

Around this time May’s brother-in-law songwriter Johnny Marks took the story and made it into a song. They persuaded singing cowboy Gene Autry to record it in 1949 after artists Bing Crosby and Dinah Shore refused it.

Lo and behold “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” was such a success that it became the second most popular song of all time. The first being “White Christmas” by Bing Crosby.

Rudolph’s story doesn’t end there though. There’s more.

May’s own childhood is one source of inspiration for Rudolph’s biography. As a child, he often dealt with bullies because of his small stature, slight build and shyness. Hans Christian Andersen’s classic tome The Ugly Duckling was another influence for the famous reindeer.

May’s original classic story differs greatly from the one on TV too.

For instance, Rudolph wasn’t the son of Donner, and didn’t live at the North Pole. He and his parents lived in an average reindeer village somewhere else. And his nose wasn’t a source of embarrassment to them either. They gave him a good self-image and a sense of self-worth.

And finally Rudolph gained Santa’s notice differently than the incident depicted in the Rankin Bass TV special. says it this way:

“…..Santa discovered the red-nosed reindeer quite by accident when he noticed a glow emanating from Rudolph’s room while he was delivering presents to Rudolph’s house. Worried that the thickening fog that night, already the cause of several accidents and delays, would keep him from completing Christmas Eve rounds, Santa tapped Rudolph to lead his team, observing on their return: ’By YOU last night’s journey was actually bossed. Without you, I’m certain we’d all have been lost!’”

Rudolph’s birthday is next month. Here’s to 75 years of that wonderfully glowing nose and looking forward to many, many more.


Read more of Claire’s work at Feed The Mind, Nourish The Soul in the Communities at The Washington Times,  and the writing group she belongs to at Greater Fort Worth Writers Group. Join her on Facebook at and


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Claire Hickey

Claire has held a Texas Cosmetology License, Certification in Surgical Technology and has decorated cakes professionally. She believes that life is a banquet to be experienced and wants to learn and do as much as possible while she’s here. This Stay @ Home Mom has always loved to write and thanks to the Communities @ The Washington Times has got her chance. Her curiosity and writing lead her to create her column based on “garbage in garbage out” theory to provide interesting and thought provoking pieces that enrich her readers. A proud member and Treasurer for the Greater Fort Worth Writer’s Group she is currently working on her first novel.  


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