Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer has a festive retail origin story

A copywriter for Montgomery Ward came up with the story of Rudolph. LMPC via Getty Images
  • Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was born out of a department store marketing assignment.
  • Defunct Chicago-based department store Montgomery Ward wanted to pass out free colouring books to children during the holiday shopping season of 1939.
  • Copywriter Robert L. May was tasked with writing a poem to go in the booklets.
  • Drawing on his own childhood experience with bullying, May created the character of Rudolph, a little reindeer ostracised for his shiny nose.
  • Rudolph was a huge hit, and Montgomery Ward distributed 2.4 million free copies of the story in 1939.
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You know Dasher and Dancer and Prancer and Vixen; Comet and Cupid and Donner and Blitzen. But do you recall that the most famous reindeer of all achieved fame thanks to a one-time department store giant?

The story of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer dates back to 1939 and centres around a copywriter named Robert L. May. May worked for Montgomery Ward, a Chicago-based department store and mail order company.

At the time, the department store would traditionally distribute colouring books for children during the holiday shopping season. According to “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: An American Hero” author Ronald D. Lankford, Jr., May was assigned to pen verses for one such booklet.

He created a poem about a fictional reindeer with a shiny, red nose, drawing upon his own recollections of being bullied as a child. May worked on the project in the midst of a particularly tragic year. May’s wife, Evelyn, died of cancer in July, and the widower was deep in debt. Despite those struggles, May was able to complete his assignment, turning in a poem with a metre similar to that of the classic “A Visit from St. Nicholas.”

In 1939, booklets containing the poem about Rudolph were handed out to shoppers. In total, 2.4 million free copies of the story were given away that year, and Montgomery Ward customers picked up a further 3.6 million in 1946.

Remarkably, company president Sewell Avery signed over the poem’s rights to May in late 1946 so that the copywriter could be compensated for his work.

A decade after the character’s introduction, May’s brother-in-law Johnny Marks penned a tune to go along with the poem, according to “Stories Behind the Greatest Hits of Christmas” author Ace Collins. In 1964, Rankin/Bass Productions came out with its famous stop-motion movie based on the story.

While Montgomery Ward shuttered in 2001, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer remains one of the most famous holiday icons in the world.