The Real Story Behind Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

For many people, Christmas will forever be associated with the television specials they watched as children, and there may be no better-loved program than Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.  The original broadcast of this Rankin/Bass stop-motion classic took place Dec. 6, 1964, on NBC, and starred the voice of Toronto’s own Paul Soles!  

In the new CBC documentary, Dreaming of a Jewish Christmas, we explore the origins of this and many other Christmas songs, written by the most unlikely of songwriters. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was, in fact, penned by a Jewish writer and the inspiration for his little reindeer came from the loss of his wife and the love he had for his daughter.

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Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: The Book

The story of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer began in 1939 with a Jewish Chicago copywriter named Robert May. May worked in the ad department of Montgomery Ward, a department store chain second only to Sears as America’s largest retailer. Every year, they purchased and gave away free Christmas colouring books, but they decided that year to create their own. They gave the task of writing it to May with the instructions: make it about an animal.

However, Robert May’s story would take a tragic turn.

The same year, May’s wife contracted cancer, and when she died a few months later, he was left to raise their young daughter Barbara alone. His employer suggested he quit work on the book and turn in whatever he had done so far but May refused, writing years later, “I needed Rudolph now more than ever.”

Remembering his daughter’s love for the deer at the Lincoln Park Zoo, May invented for the subject of his book a little reindeer with a shiny nose. He thought this creature might become a symbol for himself and Barbara that happier times lay ahead.

He was right.

When Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer came out at Christmas 1939, it was an instant hit.  Montgomery Ward gave out 2.4 million copies, and only stopped issuing it afterwards because of wartime restrictions on paper. When they resumed in 1946, it was even more popular.

For all his efforts, Robert May never received anything more than his salary, but that changed in 1947. Sewell Avery, the head of Montgomery Ward, perhaps moved by the spirit of the holiday, gave all the rights for Rudolph to the copywriter. It was the first time the company had ever done so.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: The Song

May's Rudolph story would soon reach legendary status: A songwriter named Johnny Marks married Robert May's sister, Margaret, the same year.

Marks was born on November 10, 1909, in Mt. Vernon, N.Y., to a secular, Jewish family. He was a decorated World War II veteran who graduated from Colgate University and studied music at Columbia and in Paris. He began writing songs much earlier, however, at the age of 13.

Marks had first become aware of the story of Rudolph when it was published in 1939 and had begun jotting notes in a notebook he kept for working on songs. The year after his marriage into the May family, he began adding music and quickly felt sure he had a hit. He asked Gene Autry to record it and although Autry did not like the song, his wife did and persuaded him to put it out as a “B” side. The “B” side became the second-biggest selling Christmas song of all time, behind only White Christmas.

Listen to the original recording of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: The Movie

In 1964, Johnny Marks’ song gave inspiration for the stop-motion film. It was produced by Rankin/Bass Productions and, with the exception of Burl Ives, all of the voices were recorded by Canadian actors at RCA Studio in Toronto. This included Paul Soles, who in a 2014 interview with CBC explained the appeal of the story: "Everybody's been to some degree separated out, found wanting, not quite fully fitting in," said Soles, who himself did not always fit in growing up Jewish. The popularity of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer has never waned. It has been broadcast every year since 1964, making it the longest-running Christmas TV special in history.

 
Produced with additional funding from: