Sure you’ve been watching “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” on TV for decades. You have all of the dialogue memorized and know exactly what’s going to happen at every turn. But what do you REALLY know about the iconic and beloved reindeer and how he came into our lives?

The fictional character of Rudolph was actually created in 1939 by 35-year-old Robert L. May, a copywriter for Montgomery Ward. He mostly wrote mundane and boring copy for the retailer’s catalogs but he was asked to write a “cheery children’s book” for Christmas shoppers. His boss said that the book should be an animal story similar to “Ferdinand the Bull” whose short film had recently been released by Walt Disney.

Before May was assigned to his task of writing a children’s book for his company, Montgomery Ward had been giving away children’s coloring books for Christmas. However, they instead decided to forge ahead with a book of their own to save money for their holiday promotion.

May, whose wife was dying of cancer, wasn’t in much of a festive mood during this time but he decided to dive into the project to take his mind off of his personal problems. May later wrote about those times saying, “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.”

As May contemplated about what to write about for the book, he decided to use a reindeer because it was a Christmas animal and images of Santa’s reindeer already existed thanks to a 1820’s poem “A Visit from Saint Nicholas” which many of you have heard over the years and know as “Twas the Night Before Christmas.” It is in this poem where we learn about Santa’s reindeer Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner and Blitzen.

May drew upon his own painfully shy childhood when he created the story about the 9th reindeer, Rudolph. Lucky for us, he didn’t decide on one of the other names in contemplation – Rollo, Rodney, Roland, Roderick or Reggy.

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May worked on the book during his spare time at his office and at home. When his wife died, his boss offered to have someone else finish the book but May declined.

As for the red nose, that has a Lake Michigan connection. Looking out of his office window during one of Chicago’s winter days and seeing the fog from Lake Michigan, May thought of how difficult it would be for Santa to deliver gifts on such a night. The red nose was the perfect answer as to how Rudolph could help Santa navigate in difficult weather. Ultimately, it was the red nose of Rudolph’s that saved Christmas and humbled everyone in Christmastown into understanding that being different wasn’t bad, it was special.

When the book was finished, May read it to his daughter, Barbara, and his late wife’s parents. May said that he could see in their eyes that the story had accomplished what he had hoped for.

Montgomery Ward shoppers had the same response with 2.4 million copies of the softcover Rudolph poem booklet being distributed to them during the 1939 holiday season. Wards gave away another 3.6 million copies to their shoppers the next year.

The poem, unlike the animated movie is not very well known. Many people don’t even know about it. You can click here to see the manuscript – the poem and the artwork that spawned the birth of Rudolph.

It starts out…

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)

While every so often they’d stop to call names At one little deer not allowed in their games –

“Ha ha! Look at Rudolph! His nose is a sight!” “It’s red as a beet! Twice as big! Twice as bright!”

In 1946, May had an offer from RCA Victor to do a spoken-word record of the Rudolph poem but he couldn’t accept. At the time, Montgomery Ward held the rights to the poem but Ward’s president later gave May the copyright to the poem free and clear in 1947.

May’s boss didn’t know what a gem Rudolph was – and how popular the character would become in the future as the “most famous reindeer of all.” According to a story published in the Gettysburg Times in 1975, May said that his boss, not overly excited about how the book was coming along, originally had said, “Can’t you come up with anything better?”

After May got the copyright for Rudolph, even though more than six million booklets had already been distributed by Wards, he had a difficult time finding a publisher. Finally, Maxton Publishers, a small New York company, published the first commercial edition of Rudolph just in time for the 1947 holiday season. 100K hardcopy editions were printed. It sold for 50¢ and it was a great success. So was RCA Victor’s 45-RPM spoken-word version of the poem. Rudolph products soon followed: a stuffed reindeer toy, kid’s slippers and picture puzzle books.

In May of 1948, May persuaded his brother-in-law, a songwriter, to write the words and music for a musical adaptation of the Rudolph book. The song, which was turned down by vocalists Bing Crosby and Dinah Shore, was recorded in 1949 by Gene Autry. The song was a great success, selling more than 25 million copies – and has been recorded by many other artists including Perry Como and Bing Crosby. It’s still one of the most popular Christmas song of all time and played on the radio all Christmas season long – over and over again.

In 1964, Rankin/Bass Productions produced an animated television film, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, which used stop-motion animation that was called “Animagic.” It’s what our kids and our kids kids and their kids have been watching every year since the movie first aired on TV. It’s the one of the longest-running television specials in American history and probably will always be.

Today, Rudolph and his red nose are legends and a part of American culture. During the 1950’s more than one hundred different Rudolph products were licensed and produced. Because of the popularity of Rudolph, May created the company “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer Enterprises” in 1951 and resigned from Wards. However, because of declining Rudolph sales in subsequent years and egregious taxation American companies, May went back to Wards as a copywriter until he retired in 1970. Rudolph may have been hitting it big but May was living on a copywriter’s salary and spent years buried in debt from his wife’s medical bills.

Rudolph, on the other hand, has never retired. He’s still working hard every Christmas Eve helping Santa deliver presents to good little boys and girls. Rudolph also appears on our TV screens every year along with his dad, Donner, mom Mrs. Donner, girlfriend Clarice and the rest of the bunch including Santa, Mrs. Claus, Hermey the Elf, Yukon Cornelius, and the Abominable Snowman (Bumble).

May died in 1976 at the age of 71. Here is his obituary, just a short paragraph in TIME magazine, for a man who gave the world so much. But May, as well as Rudolph, went down in history – and we are all the better for it.