In 1939, with the depression still casting a shadow over sales and war worries depressing the general mood, executives at Montgomery Ward were looking for a special Christmas draw to lure shoppers. Traditional themes – Santa, The Night Before Christmas, Dicken’s A Christmas Carol, the Twelve Days of Christmas – all seemed a bit tired, and not nearly distinctive enough. They appealed to Robert May, a company copywriter, to come up with a whole new take on Christmas. May responded with a story poem whose meter and opening lines seem borrowed from Clement Moore’s famous work.
“T’was the day before Christmas and all through the hills, the reindeer were playing, enjoying the spills…”
The similarities soon fade, and May’s poem emerges as a wholly unique tale of a left-out, overlooked reindeer who against all odds ends up literally outshining his fellow reindeer. Montgomery Ward printed the poem in book form, with illustrations by art department employee Denver Gillen, and game out 2.5 million copies over the Christmas season.
Instead of fading with the season’s wrapping paper, Rudolph lingered in the popular conscious. May had created the perfect icon for the era. Rudolph, the bashful, small, unappreciated reindeer who becomes a hero, was a character with which every child could identify. Who has not felt rejected and left out at some point? And what child has not dreamed of doing something so spectacular even his worst enemies would come to admire him?
For parents, the story’s American virtues – rooting for the underdog, the importance of every individual, and the belief that doing one’s best will be rewarded – seemed all the more poignant against the backdrop of Hitler’s war machine. Due to paper shortages, Montgomery Ward could not reissue the story during World War II. But when it brought the story back in 1946, another 3.6 million copies went into eager young hands.
Robert May himself did not profit from the story at first. In fact, his medical bills from his wife’s terminal illness, and the six children he had to raise and support, made his Christmases anything but bright.
In 1946, Montgomery Ward transferred the rights to May, who promptly sold the story to a children’s book publisher. Over 100,000 copies of the book were sold during the 1947 and 1948 Christmas seasons. Then Johnny Marks, May’s friend and brother-in-law, set the verse to music. Recorded by Gene Autry in 1949, it sold two million copies in its first season and ensured Rudolph’s permanent fame.
Over the next two decades, over 500 officially licensed Rudolph-related products appeared on store shelves, including everything from slippers to lamps to cookie cutters and cuckoo clocks. May’s book was published around the world in over two dozen languages, and in 1964 an animated Rudolph finally debuted as a Christmas television special.