The Many Gifts of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
Updated: May 17
“You know Dasher and Dancer
And Prancer and Vixen
Comet and Cupid
And Donner and Blitzen
But do you recall
The most famous reindeer of all…”
We probably can all recite these lyrics by heart. They are, of course, the opening lines from the song Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer.
When I hear the song, I think of my personal connection. Well, my connection—once removed. For in 1949, when singing cowboy Gene Autry introduced Rudolph The Re-Nosed Reindeer, I wasn’t even born.
My parents were newlyweds and as my mother told the story, it was a cold, windy night when they went to the local Christmas tree lot to pick out their first tree together. Mommy said that they played the song over and over on the tree lot’s loud speaker. “I heard it so much,” she admitted, “I wasn’t even sure that I liked it. But that probably had a lot to do with the fact that Gene Autry wasn’t one of my personal favorite cowboy stars.”
Despite my mother’s initial reaction, Rudolph shot to No. 1 on Billboard, selling two-million copies, and became second only to White Christmas as a perennial Christmas favorite.
Family stories are wonderful to tell and retell. And the holidays are the perfect time to prepare a few of these stories to write and share with family. Not much of a writer? Then prepare a few times and tell a story or two when the family is gathered. Sometimes, looking into the backdrop of a family story adds real interest to the story. And in the case of the story behind Rudolph, it works gratitude into the tale.
But do you know the story behind Rudolph?
Christmas, 1938. Four-year-old Barbara May sat curled up on her father’s lap, her eyes moist with tears, listening.
Her father, Robert, spent nights comforting his daughter by reading his Christmas story. This was his special gift to little Barbara that year—an effort to help her get through the recent loss of her mother.
Robert May (Bob) was a copywriter for Montgomery Ward. His wife, Evelyn, had just died of cancer, and Bob and little Barbara were suffering. Bob had lost his loving wife, Barbara didn’t understand why she couldn’t have her mommy just like other little girls. To make matters worse, Evelyn’s treatments had decimated the family’s savings, and Bob and Barbara had to move out of their home into a drafty two-room apartment in Chicago.
With no money for presents, Bob fell back on his writing skills to try to give his little girl something special—a personal Christmas story. He came up with the story of Rudolph, and never dreamed the impact it would have on generations of children.
The story gets better from here on out. Bob and Barbara made it through those tough times. Bob’s boss at Montgomery Ward bought the rights. The store wanted to create a Christmas coloring book to give out to all the children that came to the store to visit Santa. It’s estimated that by the end of World War II, Montgomery Ward had distributed more than six million booklets.
By 1946, RCA Victor wanted to record the story and approached Montgomery Ward about buying the copyright. Company president Sewell Avery then did something remarkable. Instead of selling the copyright, Montgomery Ward gave it back to Bob May and let him negotiate his own deals. That was the second gift of Rudolph.
Rudolph’s popularity grew even more in 1949 when Bob’s brother-in-law, Johnny Marks, adapted the story to lyrics and published the song. He tried peddling the song to several well-known singers—including Bing Crosby and Dinah Shore—but they all turned him down.
Finally, he approached Gene Autry who also turned him down, feeling a children’s Christmas song was out of character for him. His wife, however, prevailed, convinced him to record it, and, as the song goes, Rudolph and Gene went down in history.
Soon many singing stars of the day were recording versions of Rudolph. Johnny Marks made millions in royalties as did Bob May, who had married again and had five more children.
Rudolph's Gifts for Us
What I remember most is the 1964 animated story that charmed a generation of Baby Boomers—myself included. In fact, watching Rudolph quickly became a family tradition that helped us launch the Christmas season each year. And according to Google, Rudolph first aired 58 years ago today.
While Rudolph is a happy song, closer examination tells a deeper, richer story with a message. Rudolph was something of a misfit. His shiny red nose was different and a source of ridicule among the reindeer and elves. He was teased, laughed at and ostracized. As it turns out, this was a story Bob knew all too well. It was his story.
Growing up, Bob was smaller than most of the boys his age. For that, he was bullied, called names and not encouraged to participate in sports and games with his classmates.
Of course, there’s a lesson (the third gift) for all of us in Rudolph and Bob’s story. It’s a lesson of hope that you can overcome almost anything. In fact, our so-called stigma—the thing that makes us stand out from the crowd—may end up being the thing that becomes our greatest asset.
The diminutive Bob may have aspired to athletics and fitting in with the other boys, but being left out of childhood games gave him more time for his studies. In 1926 Bob graduated Dartmouth College magna cum laude and a member of Phi Beta Kappa.
The second lesson of the story, and the fourth gift, is a reminder to all of us to be a little more thoughtful and kind to those who may be different or less fortunate.
In the animated story, Rudolph discovers the Island of Misfit Toys—a place for sad, unwanted toys that for one reason or another children had rejected. Rudolph and Santa go to the Island, and all the toys jump in the sleigh to be delivered to children who will love them. Even as a child, that part always got to me.
I think that’s why I’ve always appreciated Robin Williams’ quote: “Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind. Always.” Williams also practiced what he preached.
During the years when Robin Williams was at the height of his career, he had a rider clause in his contracts that required the production company to hire several homeless people to “work” on the set.
Rather than shun those down on their luck, Williams embraced them by putting several on the payroll. What’s more, he didn’t just remember the less fortunate once a year, at Christmas, he made it a policy to give and care with every movie.
I hope you’ll watch or listen to the story of Rudolph with new eyes and fresh ears. Remember Bob, who passed away in 1976, his daughter Barbara, and the generosity of the one-time mail-order, corporate giant Montgomery Ward.
Then think about your own life and the lives of those around you. If you’re down on yourself, get over it and get on with living your best life. It may take a while, but it’s better to strive than wallow.
And remember that there’s always someone who has it worse than you. As an American, that’s pretty much the majority of the people in the world. Help where you can, and if you can’t, at least do as Robin Williams implored, “Be kind. Always.”