FAQ for Christmas

Where Did Rudolph Come From?

Robert May's story of Rudolf

Here's the story of how the reindeer with the bright red nose first came to life... The year was 1939. A young man named Robert May was working as a copywriter for a department store in Chicago. One day, his boss asked him to write a Christmas story that could be given away to customers' children. Robert set to work on the project, but he found it hard to keep his mind on his writing. His wife was ill with cancer, and he was filled with grief.

He thought of his four-year-old daughter, Barbara. She didn't understand why her mother couldn't play or go places with her. Robert also thought of his own childhood. In school he had skipped two grades ahead. Tall and thin, the youngest in his class, he didn't always fit in. The other children made fun of him. He decided to write a story to comfort Barbara and other children who felt different and left out.

His boss said the story should be about an animal. Robert thought that "for Christmas, there was only one animal ...a reindeer." The reindeer would be different, as Robert had been as a child. But the story would have a happy ending. Whatever made the reindeer different would make him a hero.

Santa would need a reindeer that was strong, fast, and able to fly in dark, snowy weather. What would make him different? Could he see in the dark? No, that was silly. "Then, " said Robert, "I had it! A nose...to shine in the dark and light the way, a big, red, shiny nose."

What could he name the reindeer? Rollo? Too happy for a lonely reindeer. Reginald? Too formal. What about Rudolph? That was it! Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer!

Robert read the finished story to Barbara and her friends. They loved it! It began. "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)."

The department store published Robert May's book and gave free copies to two million children during the 1939 Christmas season. After World War II, over three million more copies were given away. So Robert's story was a great success-but there was more to come. In 1949, Robert's brother-in-law, Johnny Marks wrote the song, "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, " based on Robert's book. Gene Autry recorded the song and by 1950 it was the most popular Christmas song on the radio. Even today, millions of children and adults still sing it.

The story of the kind-hearted little reindeer still brings us special cheer at Christmas-and all because Robert May remembered how it felt to be different. Story of Rudolph adapted from an article in Highlights for Children written by Catherine R. Joyce; December, 1994.

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