The True Story of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

As the holiday season of 1938 came to Chicago, Bob May wasn’t feeling much comfort or joy. A 34-year-old ad writer for Montgomery Ward, May was exhausted and nearly broke. His wife, Evelyn, was bedridden, on the losing end of a two-year battle with cancer. This left Bob to look after their four-year old-daughter, Barbara.

One night, Barbara asked her father, “Why isn’t my mommy like everybody else’s mommy?” As he struggled to answer his daughter’s question, Bob remembered the pain of his own childhood. A small, sickly boy, he was constantly picked on and called names. But he wanted to give his daughter hope, and show her that being different was nothing to be ashamed of. More than that, he wanted her to know that he loved her and would always take care of her. So he began to spin a tale about a reindeer with a bright red nose who found a special place on Santa’s team. Barbara loved the story so much that she made her father tell it every night before bedtime. As he did, it grew more elaborate. Because he couldn’t afford to buy his daughter a gift for Christmas, Bob decided to turn the story into a homemade picture book.

In early December, Bob’s wife died. Though he was heartbroken, he kept working on the book for his daughter. A few days before Christmas, he reluctantly attended a company party at Montgomery Ward. His co-workers encouraged him to share the story he’d written. After he read it, there was a standing ovation. Everyone wanted copies of their own. Montgomery Ward bought the rights to the book from their debt-ridden employee. Over the next six years, at Christmas, they gave away six million copies of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer to shoppers. Every major publishing house in the country was making offers to obtain the book. In an incredible display of good will, the head of the department store returned all rights to Bob May. Four years later, Rudolph had made him into a millionaire.

Now remarried with a growing family, May felt blessed by his good fortune. But there was more to come. His brother-in-law, a successful songwriter named Johnny Marks, set the uplifting story to music. The song was pitched to artists from Bing Crosby on down. They all passed. Finally, Marks approached Gene Autry. The cowboy star had scored a holiday hit with “Here Comes Santa Claus” a few years before. Like the others, Autry wasn’t impressed with the song about the misfit reindeer. Marks begged him to give it a second listen. Autry played it for his wife, Ina. She was so touched by the line “They wouldn’t let poor Rudolph play in any reindeer games” that she insisted her husband record the tune.

Within a few years, it had become the second best-selling Christmas song ever, right behind “White Christmas.” Since then, Rudolph has come to life in TV specials, cartoons, movies, toys, games, coloring books, greeting cards and even a Ringling Bros. circus act. The little red-nosed reindeer dreamed up by Bob May and immortalized in song by Johnny Marks has come to symbolize Christmas as much as Santa Claus, evergreen trees and presents. As the last line of the song says, “He’ll go down in history.”

Jennie

About Jennie

I have been teaching preschool for over thirty years. This is my passion. I believe that children have a voice, and that is the catalyst to enhance or even change the learning experience. Emergent curriculum opens young minds. It's the little things that happen in the classroom that are most important and exciting. That's what I write about. I am highlighted in the the new edition of Jim Trelease's bestselling book, "The Read-Aloud Handbook" because of my reading to children. My class has designed quilts that hang as permanent displays at both the National Liberty Museum in Philadelphia, and the Fisher House at the Boston VA Hospital.
This entry was posted in Expressing words and feelings, Family, Inspiration, Kindness, Love, picture books, self esteem, wonder and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

66 Responses to The True Story of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

  1. beth says:

    oh, I absolutely love this history, Jennie. thank you so much for sharing it –

  2. Thanks for sharing this wonderful story, Jennie! Best wishes, Michael

  3. Dan Antion says:

    Thank you so much for sharing this story, Jennie. Merry Christmas.

  4. Ritu says:

    How lovely, Jennie 🎄🎅🎁

  5. Darlene says:

    This is indeed an amazing story. One that depicts the spirit of Christmas as much as the Rudolf Story itself. My dad was a huge Gene Autrey fan and he sang this song to us every Christmas. Later, I bought the Gene Autrey album and played it for my kids every year. (now I sing it to my dogs). Thanks so much for sharing it!!

    • Jennie says:

      Hi Darlene, it is truly an amazing story, and to think that Gene Autrey was the one who recorded the song, and your dad sang it to you- and then you bought the record and sing it to your dogs. That makes the story even better! Merry Christmas!🎄

  6. K.L. Hale says:

    Jennie, I had no idea! This makes me love the song even more! Thank you for sharing! 💚💚😭😭🙏🏻🙏🏻🎄🎄🎄

  7. Fantastic Jennie… Sending you much love and may many more magical moments surrounding your students whom you have helped SEE Magic through your eyes in many of the books you have shared with them..
    Happy Christmas and all the very best for 2023.. ❤ Love Sue xx

  8. Thanks for sharing. Wouldn’t let him play reindeer games …. I remember how that line stuck with me as a kid. Interesting to know the story behind it. Thanks for sharing!

  9. That is so cool. I did not know this story of that story. Thanks for gifting it here!
    And happy holidays!

  10. Jennie, I hope you don’t mind but Kid linked this post over at the Saddle Up Saloon. There’s a few characters holed up there but they’ve got a cheery fire going and are telling stories. There’s some music. It’s not a bad place to be.

  11. Don Ostertag says:

    I never knew the entire backstory. Thank you, Jennie.

  12. What a wonderful story!! I never knew this is how the story came to be.

  13. Pingback: The True Story of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer — A Teacher’s Reflections – Sharon E. Cathcart

  14. Thanks for this lovely story, Jennie.

  15. Thanks so much for sharing this beauitful Christmas story and history of Rudolph, Jennie! 🎄 Wishing you A Very Merry Christmas & A Happy New Year! xo

  16. cindy knoke says:

    Lovely Jennie. Merry Christmas! 🔔🎉🎅🎁🎄

  17. quiall says:

    The story of its origins is as touching as the story itself.

  18. Carla says:

    I love this Jennie. I still have my old copy of Rudolph (with a similar cover) from when I was a child. What a heartwarming story about the author.

  19. Mireya says:

    Oh my wow! I never knew this. There are stories of miracles all over the world. This is the gift, the magic I need. We all need it. Thank you and happy holidays.

  20. Pratik says:

    Nice story and love it to read.

  21. Brenda says:

    Heartwarming story to read on Christmas Eve. I never knew the back history to the song – I dont think I was aware it was a story either. Thanks so much for sharing.

    Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year Jennie. I hope you have a good break.

  22. beetleypete says:

    I lived 70 years and never knew any of this! It is pretty much the most perfect Christmas story ever!
    Best wishes, Pete.

  23. frenchc1955 says:

    Jennie, thank you for this wonderful story!

  24. frenchc1955 says:

    Reblogged this on charles french words reading and writing and commented:
    Please enjoy this wonderful post from Jennie, the excellent teacher!

  25. willedare says:

    Thanks for this important backstory regarding “Rudolph!” I knew about Bob May, but I didn’t know about his ill/dying wife or that the story evolved as a way to comfort and inspire their young daughter. Hurrah for the healing spirit of creativity (even when catalyzed by great pain) and hurrah for the Montgomery Ward leadership not to have held onto the copyright for May’s story! I believe his (new) brother-in-law, the composer and songwriter Johnny Marks, was Jewish, and Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_L._May) tells us that May was Jewish, too — and managed to attend Dartmouth while his first wife was a Radcliffe graduate. 1939, the year he created “Rudolph” was also the year that Hitler closed down all Jewish businesses in Germany and invaded Poland, triggering the declaration of war against Germany by Allied countries such as the UK, Australia, France, and Canada. The line “They wouldn’t let poor Rudolph join in any reindeer games” takes on an even deeper poignance to me when this geopolitical layer of history is added to the tale of how “Rudolph” came to be created… Deep breath in. Deep breath out.

    • Jennie says:

      Hi Will! Thank you for this. The Wikipedia article gives even more detail to the story.
      Yes, I believe Marks was Jewish. Honestly, Jewish people are givers, well educated, with a great appreciation for the arts. I think perhaps that’s why many composers are Jewish. I will never understand prejudice, especially when it comes to people who are givers. Growing up, my good friends were Jewish, but that wasn’t important; what was important was them-as good people with an appreciation for arts and education. I think you are spot on with the importance of the line, “They wouldn’t let poor Rudolph join n any reindeer games” at the time when the Nazi’s invaded Poland. I’m so glad the story and the importance of giving and caring is a message today (although you wouldn’t think so listening to the news). Have I ever told you the back story of Eric Carle in Nazi Germany? Deep breath in. Deep breath out.

  26. willedare says:

    I do not remember reading about Eric Carle’s backstory on your blog. Have you written a blog post about it that I could refer to?

  27. Maryann says:

    Interesting, I never knew this. Thanks for sharing this story ❤️

  28. I don’t think I’ve heard this story, Jennie. Thanks for sharing it here. I was working on my own twist for Rudolph, but didn’t finish it in time. Maybe next year. Hugs.

  29. Oyinwrites says:

    Beautiful, thanks for sharing.

  30. Pingback: The True Story of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer – oyinwrites

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