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The bittersweet origin of Rudolph’s red nose

Rudolph the Red-nosed reindeer

VIAVAL TOURS / Shutterstock

Sarah Robsdottir - published on 12/21/22

A dad down on his luck pens a story of hope for his daughter, as his wife dies of cancer.

There are manydifferentaccounts of how Robert “Bob” May, a Chicago-based, 34-year-old, debt-ridden advertiser for Montgomery Ward came to write the beloved Christmas tale of Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer, but one thing they all have in common is that they start on a very sad note.

“Why isn’t my mommy like everyone else’s mommy?” May’s 4-year-old daughter Barbara asked her father one night. 

Barbara’s mom Evelyn was nearing the end of a two-year cancer battle, which left May to function as a single father in many ways. May responded to his daughter by spinning a bedtime story about a reindeer whose bright red nose was a great source of hardship for him: 

All of the other reindeer used to laugh and call him names, they never let poor Rudolph join in any reindeer games …”

While at the same time, this bright red nose eventually served a great purpose: 

Then one foggy Christmas Eve, Santa came to say

‘Rudolph with your nose so bright, won’t you guide my sleigh tonight?’

Then all the reindeer loved him as they shouted out with glee

Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer, you’ll go down in history!

The tale not only drew on his wife’s illness, but on May’s own difficult childhood in which he was picked on for being small and sickly. May wanted to teach Barbara that being different or suffering from a tremendous hardship is sometimes the exact thing that makes a person great. 

May ended up sharing his story at Montgomery Ward’s Christmas party that year. It was so well-received, his bosses immediately purchased the rights to it and commissioned May to turn it into a children’s book for the company to distribute the following holiday season. Just a few months later, in the spring of 1939, May’s wife succumbed to cancer. May’s bosses took pity on him.

“Just turn in what you have,” his supervisor said in regard to the proposed story book, wanting to remove the creative burden from May’s shoulders.

But May threw himself into writing: “I needed Rudolph now more than ever,” he explained many years later. 

The story book was finally finished in August of 1939 and over the next few years was distributed by Montgomery Ward to over six million shoppers. May received a cash bonus for his efforts that helped relieve his debts, and he and the illustrator Denver Gillen were given credit on the book’s cover. But Montgomery Ward owned the rights to May’s now very popular story — which is why the next part of this story is so utterly amazing:

“Then a miracle happened for May and his family.” [May had remarried by this point and had more children and more bills to pay.] “In late 1946, the head of Montgomery Ward, Sewell Avery, a hard-nosed businessman, gave the rights to the Rudolph poem back to Bob May, free and clear. It was the first time Montgomery Ward had ever done this.”

In response to this remarkable news, May’s brother-in-law — a composer named Johnny Marks — turned the story into a Christmas carol. The song was recorded by Gene Autry in 1949 and immediately topped the Billboard charts. It remained the second-best-selling holiday song (right behind “White Christmas”) until 1980. 

The story of Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer has also been adapted into several TV and movie productions, with one of the most beloved versions being a stop-motion piece released in 1964. Another popular adaptation was released in 1998 and featured a star-studded cast. 

So if you find Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer playing in the background on the radio or on TV while you prepare for Christmas this year, take a moment to reflect on the great suffering that inspired this upbeat song. Perhaps you too have a trial you’re facing in which you need God to turn your “tears into dancing” (Psalm 30) — as he did for Bob May. Regardless, it’s safe to say that none of us will ever look at that glowing red nose in the same way again! 

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