Old School Americana & Nostalgia


‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’: The Heartwarming True Story Behind the Christmas Classic

‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’: The Heartwarming True Story Behind the Christmas Classic

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer has been an endearing holiday story for decades and brings great joy to many, yet its beginnings were less than ideal. The story behind this story is one filled with heartache that turns into hope. Author Robert May did not see any brightness at all in a season full of light. His wife was suffering from cancer and he found himself filled with debt and worry.

May offered some insight into his creative adventure to create Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer in the late 1930s. “As I hurried my way to work, I noticed the Christmas Street decorations had been taken down and in a way, I was relieved,” he wrote in a Dec. 22, 1975, edition of the Gettysburg Times.

Forget about being in the spirit of the season. That was the furthest thing from Robert May’s mind at the time. “Here I was heavily in debt at age 35 and still grinding out catalog copy,” he wrote. “Instead of writing the great American novel as I’d once hoped, I was describing men’s white shirts. It seemed I’d always be a loser.”

‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’ Author Gets Boost From His Boss

As the dark clouds of desperation seemed to be closing in on Robert May, a sliver of light broke through. It took the intervention of May’s boss to kickstart his creativity. The boss gave May his orders. He had to come up with a story.

May decided to have a reindeer help Santa in his story. He chose the reindeer because his young daughter, Barbara, loved seeing them at the zoo. Finding his reindeer concept around being a “loser” reflects more about May’s view of himself. He was not finished with his work on Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

“Outside the fog swirled from Lake Michigan dimming the street lights,” May wrote. “Something had to help Santa on a night like this. Suddenly, I had it! A nose! A bright red nose that would shine through fog like a flood light!” Then, May gave his reindeer a name – Rudolph.

Well, Robert May’s boss wasn’t totally sold on the idea just yet. It reportedly took him to see an illustration done by Denver Gillen to change his mind. May started writing, and he mentioned that “spring slipped into summer.” Sadly, his wife Evelyn’s condition was not improving. She died in the summertime.

Robert May Finds Strength in Finishing Story

Robert May’s boss reportedly told him that he could stop working on the project if he didn’t feel like it. “But I needed Rudolph now more than ever,” May wrote. “Gratefully I buried myself in the writing. Finally, in late August, it was done.”

To get some feedback on it, Robert May read his story to both his daughter Barbara and his wife’s parents. “In their eyes I could see the story had accomplished what I had hoped,” May wrote for the newspaper.

“Today children all over the world read and hear about the little deer who started out in life as a loser just as I did,” May said. Reportedly, during the first year of the book’s sale, 2.4 million copies were given away. “But they learn that when he gave himself to others, his handicap became the very means by which he achieved happiness.”