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'Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer': The Story Behind the Song

You know Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner, and Blitzen. But the most famous reindeer of all who has his very own song is Rudolph and his shiny red nose. The Christmas song "Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer" has become a classic over the years, telling the story of an outsider reindeer who gets to save Christmas because his shiny nose helps Santa Claus fly his sleigh on a foggy night.

Robert L. May first created the character Rudolph for The Montgomery Ward Company in 1939. His brother-in-law, songwriter Johnny Marks, later thought that the story would make a great Christmas song and boy was he right. The origins of May's story are actually as sad as Rudolph's time as a young buck. May was a copywriter living in Chicago. He was depressed with his life; his wife was incredibly ill at the time and he had dreamed of becoming a novelist. Montgomery Ward asked him to come up with a character for their seasonal coloring book. He dreamed up Rudolph, who was different from the other reindeer but able to save Christmas Eve with his nose that glows.

May was initially inspired by the character of the Ugly Duckling, with whom he had always resonated as a young child. According to TIME, the unhappy duckling resonated with him as an adult as well.

"'And how are you starting the new year?' I glumly asked myself,'" he later recalled, describing his mindset in early 1939 when he first received the assignment. "Here I was, heavily in debt at [nearly] 35, still grinding out catalog copy. Instead of writing the great American novel, as I'd once hoped, I was describing men's white shirts."

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But Rudolph would change everything. After over 2 million copies of his story were distributed for free, Maxton Publishing Co. wanted to publish it in book form. But it was in thanks to Johnny Marks that Rudolph became a true part of Christmas because the song turned into a hit and eventually a classic.

Harry Brannon was the first artist to record the song, but it was Gene Autry who turned it into a number 1 hit on the radio in Christmas of 1949. The song has been covered by some of the greatest artists in music history over the years ranging from Bing Crosby and The Temptations to Burl Ives and The Supremes.

 In 1964, Romeo Muller was tasked with writing a TV special inspired by the popular Christmas tune. He wanted to base it on Mays' original book but couldn't find a copy of it so he had to get creative by introducing some new characters. The story centers around Rudolph leaving the North Pole because he doesn't like being different. He befriends prospector Yukon Cornelius and Hermey the elf as they search for a place where they belong. The trio fights an abominable snowman, discovers an island full of misfit toys, and ultimately comes together to save Christmas with Rudolph's shiny red nose. Yippee! The stop motion animated special became an instant classic and has been televised every year since, making it the longest-running Christmas special of all time. 

Muller went on to create more of the now-classic stop motion puppet specials, including Frosty the Snowman, Santa Claus is Coming to Town and The Little Drummer Boy. Though the concept of young Rudolph being bullied for looking different received some criticism in recent years, it hasn't changed the fact that it's a classic story with a happy ending that is now part of our annual holiday.

"Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer" Lyrics:

You know Dasher and Dancer and Prancer and Vixen
Comet and Cupid and Donner and Blitzen
But do you recall
The most famous reindeer of all?
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
Had a very shiny nose
And if you ever saw it
You would even say it glows
All of the other reindeer
Used to laugh and call him names
They never let poor Rudolph
Join in any reindeer games
Then one foggy Christmas Eve
Santa came to say
"Rudolph, with your nose so bright
Won't you guide my sleigh tonight?"
Then how the reindeer loved him
As they shouted out with glee
"Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
You'll go down in history"

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'Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer': The Story Behind the Song