Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: The Origin of His Story

Updated May 20, 2021
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

From film appearances to radio broadcasts, it's nearly impossible to escape Santa and his reindeer during the holiday season at the end of every year. Rudolph, specifically, with his bright red nose and determined countenance, is particularly beloved by children around the world. Yet, the plucky foal's origin story isn't as well known as the lyrics to his title song are. So, take a look at how one man brought Rudolph, and his legendary red-nose, to life.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer's Birth

From the creative mind of Robert L. May, a copywriter for the department store, Montgomery Ward, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was born. Given an assignment to create a new holiday character to be featured in the store's annual coloring book, May envisioned this animal and his triumphant tale. Struggling with an ill wife and heavily in debt, the creative process wasn't particularly joyous for this Chicago father. Once determined to write the next great American novel, May churned out this story about a reindeer with a shockingly bright red nose who gets teased by his peers but in the end finds out that his nose can help save Christmas. About 2.4 million copies of the booklet were released for free in 1939, and when Maxton Publishing Co. printed the book in hardcover, it became a best-seller. In 1947, May was given the full copyright for his story, and began working on another Rudolph project - one that would surpass even his bestselling story.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer cover

"Rudolph With Your Nose So Bright"

May's brother-in-law, Johnny Marks, was a practicing songwriter, and he helped the author translate his story into a Christmas song entitled Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Gene Autry picked up the song and recorded the now infamous original version, bringing it to ears across the world in 1949. Hitting number one on the U.S. charts that Christmas, it quickly fell back off of the charts after the new year had started, but each following holiday season the song returned to the radio.

American actor and singer Gene Autry

Artists Who've Helped Bring Rudolph to Life

Hundreds of musicians of varying genres and styles have lent their musical talents to this Christmas tune over the years. Here are some of the more popular artists to have released their own cover of the late '40s hit.

  • Bing Crosby
  • Ella Fitzgerald
  • The Supremes
  • Jackson 5
  • Dolly Parton
  • Mary J. Blige
  • Kacey Musgraves
  • Meghan Trainor

Rudolph Gets Turned Into Clay

The 1960s was an interesting time for experimental animation, and Rudolph's story was given the same unique treatment. In 1964, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, a stop-motion Claymation film produced by Rankin/Bass, was released. The story expanded on May's original tale, adding misfit toys, a miner, elves, and even an abominable snowman. It grew to such popularity immediately following its release that it has subsequently been rebroadcast every Christmas since, making it the longest-running Christmas special in history.

Hermey the elf and Rudolph

Rudolph Gets a Few Sequels

Although the film industry desperately tried to recreate its success with Rudolph by giving him a few sequels, none of these projects ever gained the same traction or cultural significance that the original film did.

Rudolph's Shiny New Year (1976)

In 1976, Rankin/Bass released Rudolph's Shiny New Year, taking Rudolph around the 'Archipelago of Lost Years' to find the New Year's baby, Happy, in time for the New Year.

Rudolph and Frosty's Christmas in July (1979)

Rankin/Bass brought Rudolph back to the big screen one more time in 1979 to send him and Frosty the Snowman on a zany adventure in Rudolph and Frosty's Christmas in July.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: The Movie (1998)

Despite this animated film's star-studded cast (John Goodman, Whoopi Goldberg, Debbie Reynolds, Bob Newhart, and many others), it couldn't recreate the magic of that original film and bombed at the box office.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and the Island of Misfit Toys (2001)

A 2001 sequel not produced by Rankin/Bass changed the format and told a new story about Rudolph and his friends using computer animation. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and the Island of Misfit Toys wasn't particularly impressive and marked an end of the Rudolph sequels for the time being.

The Gift That Keeps on Giving

Jon Favreau and Will Ferrell's smash Christmas film, Elf (2003), was inspired by Rudolph's story. In an interview, director Favreau admits that growing up and watching Rudolph gave him a tangible nexus for his holiday movie. "The story is about a guy who was raised by elves, but in actuality he's a guy growing up in a Rankin/Bass Christmas special, and I though that contrast was really comedic and fun," he says. "For the North Pole scenes, we designed the set to look like a stop-motion set" and "we tried to mimic the jitteriness of the animation, and even got the rights to the costumes." So, if you're a die-hard Elf fan, you have Rudolph and his bright red nose to thank for it.

He'll "Go Down in History"

Robert L. May might not have written the great American novel that he anticipated he would, but the one that he published has far surpassed the popularity of classic works from Dickens, Hemmingway, and Morrison. Even if you don't celebrate Christmas, chances are you can recite the lyrics of the catchy song by heart and have a Polaroid tucked away of you and your classmates dressed up like reindeer. For nearly a hundred years now, Rudolph has made a home in our hearts and it looks like he's going to stay there for many more years to come.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: The Origin of His Story