Behind the History and the Meaning of the Name (and Song): “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer! Had a very shiny nose!

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They are lyrics we know well. Lyrics we’ve sung and look forward to singing each year.

Indeed, Rudolph is the subject of much attention this time of year—especially in his namesake song—but all of this focus on the reindeer with the red nose begs the question: who was he and where did the name come from and what’s the meaning behind his name?

The Character’s Creator

The fictional character Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was created by Robert L. May, a Long Island, New York-born writer. May was born in 1905 and died in 1976. He was raised in a Jewish section of the city, though he grew up baring no religious preference.

As the story goes, in 1939, May, who was also an accomplished bridge player and ghostwriter for the syndicated columnist Milton C. Work, was asked to create a “cheery children’s book” for Christmas shoppers. His directions were that it “should be an animal story, with a character like Ferdinand the Bull,” who was the subject of a short film by Disney then.

At the time, May had been a buyer of kids’ books for the retail corporation Montgomery Ward. He was also having trouble paying for medical costs for his wife, who was dying of cancer. He wrote, “I was heavily in debt at age 35, still grinding out catalogue copy. Instead of writing the great American novel, as I’d always hoped. I was describing men’s white shirts.”

Rudolph, The Character

May gave the character a younger sibling feel, along with an “ugly duckling” feel. He “drew on memories of his own painfully shy childhood when creating his Rudolph story,” he said.

May wrote the book in about 50 hours, during his spare time away from work. As he finished each part, he read it to his young daughter. “She was my guinea pig,” he said, and “I ran the words on her for size.”

Evelyn, his wife, later died and May’s higher-ups said he could pass the assignment to someone else, but he stuck with it. Eventually, when he was done, he read the story to his daughter. “I called Barbara (his daughter) and her grandparents into the living room and read it to them. In their eyes I could see that the story accomplished what I had hoped,” he said.

The Story

Rudolph is a standout reindeer in Santa’s stable. He stands out because of his shining, bright red nose. All of the other reindeer make fun of him for this. He looks stupid, goofy, so they thought. But one Christmas night when the fog was everywhere, Santa sought Rudolph out specifically, needing him to light his way on the sleigh, traveling from house to house. Rudolph was put at the head of the line.

The Book

According to MFLIBRA, the softcover Rudolph poem booklet was first handed out by Montgomery Ward during the 1939 holiday season with over 2.4 million copies distributed. In 1946, when the book was reissued, Montgomery Ward gave away another 3.6 million copies.

May got an offer from RCA Victor, at that time, to do a spoken-word recording of the poem. Montgomery Ward gave him permission to copyright the poem in 1947. He looked for a formal publisher but “nobody wanted” Rudolph. Part of that was 6 million copies had already been distributed. May said, “Finally I found a publisher, a little guy with a big nose, who said he knew what it was like for Rudolph and was willing to take a chance on a printing.”

Maxton Publishers did the first run in time for the 1947 holiday season. He approved 100,000 hardcover books, which turned out to be a big success. The spoken-word recording was, too. And quickly several Rudolph products and toys were put on the market.

The Song

In 1948, May enlisted his brother-in-law, Johnny Marks, to write a song. The track was turned down by artists like Bing Crosby and Dinah Shore. But in 1949 it was sung by Gene Autry, whose wife pushed him to sing and record it. Bing Crosby later recorded his own version. It’s become the second-most popular Christmas song behind “White Christmas.” Now, ever since the mid-20th century, the character and the song have become popular all throughout North America and beyond.

The Animated Movie

The final piece to the Rudolph origin story occurs in 1964 when the stop-motion animated film was released. That movie, which you can see below, has become as synonymous with Christmas as the star on top of the tree.

Photo by GraphicaArtis/Getty Images

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