Written By Will Dabbs, MD
Everything in the news these days seems to be bad. Carnage captures the eye, and we human animals are drawn way more to chaos than to kittens. If you form your worldview via the modern mass media you might be forgiven if you’d sooner just blast off into space and abandon the whole sordid lot. Perhaps that’s what’s driving Elon Musk’s train.
This is a radical thought, but what if people are not so ghastly as we have been led to believe? What if out there amidst all that rampant inhumanity there was actually something wholesome and inspiring? In this tale, we find a dad who took something bad and made it into something good. We also find a massive corporation that actually did the right thing by the little guy when they really didn’t have to.
It was 1938, and life was hard. The country and the world were still clawing their way out of the Great Depression, and people still knew genuine deprivation. Additionally, medical science was not then what it is today. Stuff that is treatable nowadays was a death sentence back then. So it was with the wife of one Robert May.
The original “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” was a booklet handed out for
free at Montgomery Ward stores during the 1939 Christmas shopping season.
Bob was a 34-year-old advertising writer for Montgomery Ward. Montgomery Ward was a massive mail order and department store conglomerate. Bob May was a tiny little piece of that enormous machine. He had very little money, and his wife Evelyn was dying from cancer. Their four-year-old daughter Barbara was facing a terribly dark Christmas. The man seemed to have very little for which to be thankful.
Bob’s life prior to this point had not exactly been all unicorns and butterflies, either. Having been a small, sickly kid himself, he had ample experience with bullying at the hands of his classmates. Children can be cruel, and this manifested in a thousand little ways.
In a full-circle moment, Bob’s employer tasked him to create a children’s story. Montgomery Ward typically gave away cheap coloring books to families doing their Christmas shopping, but this particular year they decided to make the book in-house and Bob drew the duty.
The end result was a familiar tale about a runt reindeer whose glowing red nose had made him an outcast. The little reindeer was frustrated, angry, and ashamed. His struggles coming to terms with his differentness were drawn from Bob’s own personal experiences during childhood.
We’ve all heard the story. Rudolph’s impediment becomes a blessing that ultimately saves Christmas. The little outcast reindeer becomes the hero. The fact that he was so different ultimately became his superpower.
Creating “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” was a process. The gimpy little deer was originally supposed to be Rollo, then Reginald, before settling out as Rudolph. In early December 1938, Evelyn succumbed to her cancer. Bob and Barbara were crushed. To console his distraught daughter, Bob shared his Rudolph project from work with his little girl.
“Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” went on to become an enduring family classic.
Most of us modern folk know the story from the 1964 Burl Ives animated Christmas special.
Word of Bob’s quaint little tale made the rounds of the marketing department at Montgomery Ward. His coworkers found the simple story to be utterly mesmerizing and requested copies of their own. In 1939, Montgomery Ward reproduced the little book en masse and gave 2.9 million copies away for free. Over the next six years they produced more than six million copies despite wartime paper shortages. The largest publishers in the country scrambled to secure the printing rights. In January 1947, Sewell Avery, the CEO of Montgomery Ward, returned the exclusive rights to May because it was the right thing to do. Bob May ultimately remarried and became a millionaire.
Bob’s brother-in-law was a songwriter named Johnny Marks. Marks took the basic prose — itself a series of rhyming couplets in anapestic tetrameter — and set it to music. Together, the two men pitched the tune to every major singer they could find. All of them demurred. However, Gene Autry’s wife Ina Mae was moved by the lyrics and insisted her husband record the project.
The song “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” became the second-most popular Christmas song ever recorded, right behind White Christmas. Rudolph went on to inspire toys, games, seasonal greeting cards, and a Ringling Brothers circus act. The familiar 1964 stop-motion television adaptation narrated by Burl Ives remains enduringly popular even today. And it all began with a grieving father trying to console his little girl.
As we move into this Christmas season, don’t believe what the news tells you. There are still scads of good people out there — they just don’t typically make quite so much noise as the other sort. The story of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is a great example.
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