The Story Behind Rudolph
A child's innocent question sparks a father to
create 'the most famous reindeer of
On a December night in Chicago, a little girl
climbed onto her father's lap and asked
a question. It was a simple question, asked in
childlike curiosity, yet it had a
heart-rending effect on Robert May.
"Daddy," four-year old Barbara asked, "why isn't
my mommy just like everybody else's mommy?"
Bob May stole a glance across his shabby two-room
apartment. On a couch lay his young wife, Evelyn, racked with cancer.
For two years she had been bedridden; for two years, all Bob's income and savings had gone to pay for treatments and
medicines. The terrible ordeal already had shattered two adult lives.
Now Bob suddenly realized the happiness of his growing
daughter was also in jeopardy. As he ran his fingers through Barbara's hair, he prayed for some satisfactory answer to her question.
Bob May knew only too well what it meant to be
"different." As a child he had been
weak and delicate. With the innocent cruelty of
children, his playmates had continually goaded the stunted, skinny lad to
tears. Later at Dartmouth, from which he was graduated in 1926,
Bob May was so small that he was always being mistaken for someone's little brother.
Nor was his adult life much happier. Unlike many
of his classmates who floated from college into plush jobs,
Bob became a lowly copy writer for Montgomery Ward, the
big Chicago mail order house. Now at 33, Bob was deep in debt, depressed and
Although Bob did not know it at the time, the
answer he gave the tousle-haired child
on his lap was to bring him to fame and fortune.
It was also to bring joy to countless
thousands of children like his own Barbara. On
that December night in the shabby
Chicago apartment, Bob cradled his little girl's
head against his shoulder and began
to tell a story.
"Once upon a time there was a reindeer named
Rudolph, the only reindeer in the
world that had a big red nose. Naturally people
called him Rudolph the Red-Nosed
Reindeer." As Bob went on to tell about Rudolph,
he tried desperately to
communicate to Barbara the knowledge that, even
though some creatures of God
are strange and different, they often enjoy the
miraculous power to make others
Rudolph, Bob explained, was terribly embarrassed
by his unique nose. Other
reindeer laughed at him; his mother and father
and sister were mortified too.
Even Rudolph wallowed in self-pity. "Well,"
continued Bob, "one Christmas Eve,
Santa Claus got his team of husky
reindeer--Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, and Vixen
ready for their yearly trip around the world. The
entire reindeer community
assembled to cheer these great heroes on their
way. But a terrible fog engulfed the
earth that evening, and Santa knew that the mist
was so thick he wouldn't be able to
find any chimney.
"Suddenly Rudolph appeared, his red nose glowing
brighter than ever. Santa sensed
at once that here was the answer to his
perplexing problem. He led Rudolph to the
front of the sleigh, fastened the harness and
climbed in. They were off! Rudolph guided Santa safely to every chimney that night.
Rain and fog, snow and sleet;
nothing bothered Rudolph, for his bright nose
penetrated the mist like a beacon.
"And so it was that Rudolph became the most
famous and beloved of all the
reindeer. The huge red nose he once hid in shame
was now the envy of every buck
and doe in the reindeer world. Santa Claus told
everyone that Rudolph had saved
the day and from that Christmas, Rudolph has been
living serenely and happy."
Little Barbara laughed with glee when her father
finished. Every night she begged
him to repeat the tale until finally Bob could
rattle it off in his sleep. Then, at
Christmastime, he decided to make the story into
a poem like "The Night Before
Christmas" and prepare it in book form
illustrated with pictures, for Barbara's
personal gift. Night after night, Bob worked on
the verses after Barbara had gone to
bed, for he was determined his daughter should
have a worthwhile gift, even though
he could not afford to buy one... Then as Bob was
about to put the finishing touches
on Rudolph, tragedy struck.
Evelyn May died. His hopes crushed, Bob turned to
Barbara as chief comfort. Yet,
despite his grief, he sat at his desk in the
quiet, now lonely apartment, and worked
on "Rudolph" with tears in his eyes. Barbara
cried with joy over his handmade gift
on Christmas morning.
Shortly after, Bob was asked to an employee
holiday party at Montgomery Ward.
He didn't want to go, but his office associates
insisted. When Bob finally agreed, he
took with him the poem and read it to the crowd.
First, the noisy throng listened with
laughter and gaiety. Then they became silent, and
at the end, broke into
spontaneous applause. That was in 1938.
By Christmas of 1947, some 6 million copies of
the booklet had been given away or sold, making Rudolph one of the most widely
distributed books in the world. The
demand for Rudolph-sponsored products increased
so much in variety and number
that educators and historians predicted Rudolph
would come to occupy a permanent
place in the Christmas legend.
Through his years of unhappiness, the tragedy of
his first wife's death and his
ultimate success with Rudolph, Bob May has
captured a sense of serenity. And as
each Christmas rolls around, he recalls with
thankfulness the night when his
daughter Barbara's question inspired him to write
the poem that closes with these
lines: "But Rudolph was bashful, despite being a
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