Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is a staple during Christmastime as, according to the popular song and television special, his nose lights the way for Santa Claus’ sleigh. As warm and fuzzy his story may be, Rudolph was actually created as a marketing gimmick for a department store in 1939. It was created by not just any store, but by the early retail giant Montgomery Ward which was founded in 1872 and was the first to incorporate a mail-order system (it filed for bankruptcy in 2000).
Robert L. May, a 34-year-old copywriter, was given the task of creating a character the department store could use in a coloring book. Since the store had been buying and giving away these books every Christmas season, they believed it would be cheaper if they created their own book.
Mays came up with a red-nosed reindeer and, when it came to naming the animal, he rejected various names such as “Rollo” and “Reginald” before settling on Rudolph. The story of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was published and Montgomery Ward distributed 2.4 million copies in the first year alone. Rudolph was a hit!
Ten years after he created the famous reindeer, Mays contacted songwriter Johnny Marks (also his brother-in-law) about adapting the story into a song. The song Marks came up with was first sung commercially by Harry Brannon in early November 1949 before Gene Autry’s famously belted out the tune. “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” shot straight up the music chart to the No. 1 position and Autry’s recording sold 2.5 million copies that first year. It eventually sold more than 12.5 copies and is second only to Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas.”
Wook Kim, “Yule Laugh, Yule Cry: 10 Things You Didn’t Know About Beloved Holiday Songs,” TIME, December 14, 2012.