Culture  /  Origin Story

The Surprisingly Sad True Story Behind 'Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer'

Copywriter Robert L. May dreamed up Rudolph during a particularly difficult time in his life.
Toby Talbot/Associated Press

Despite its fantastical holiday elements, the story was partly based on some of May’s past experiences. The character of Rudolph who is “shunned by others but vindicated some way in a happy ending” was inspired by the story of the Ugly Duckling, which May later wrote had always appealed to him as someone who, growing up, was a “shy” and “small” boy, and who “had known what it was like to be an underdog.”

May was feeling downtrodden about his present life, too. “‘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 catalogue copy. Instead of writing the great American novel, as I’d once hoped, I was describing men’s white shirts.

He was also feeling “glum” in 1939 for a more serious reason. He was writing the descriptions of a weeping, “lonesome” reindeer as his wife was dying. In a 1975 article for the Gettysburg Times, he described going to work on a windy, icy-cold January day and feeling “relieved” that holiday street decorations by Montgomery Ward had been taken down. “My wife was suffering from a long illness and I didn’t feel very festive,” he recalled.

Meanwhile, May kept working. He figured the story should be about a reindeer because images of Santa’s reindeer already everywhere during the Christmas season, and his toddler daughter was obsessed with the deer at Lincoln Park Zoo. Though Santa’s reindeer already had names — Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner and Blitzen, thanks to the 1820s poem “A Visit from Saint Nicholas” — May came up with a ninth for the list. He brainstormed a list of names that began with the letter “R” for “alliterative purposes,” such as Rollo, Rodney, Roland, Roderick and Reggy. (That list is now held at May’s alma mater Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., with the rest of his papers.) In a 1963 interview, he said he thought Rollo sounded “too happy for a reindeer with an unhappy problem” and Reginald “seemed too sophisticated,” but Rudolph “rolled off the tongue nicely.” As for the idea of a glowing nose apt for navigating, that light-bulb moment came from looking out his office window in the middle of one of Chicago’s infamous winter days, seeing the fog from Lake Michigan and thinking of Santa trying to do his work on such a night. (The idea almost got shelved, May would note, after focus group participants said they thought a red nose had “connotations of alcoholism.”)