Rudolph is probably the most popular reindeer in Christmas culture. He's the only one with his own song, and it's a pretty popular one, to boot. You can't get through the holiday season without seeing Rudolph's special on TV or hearing his song. But both were actually based on a book. And here's the surprising part: Rudolph isn't even 100 years old yet.
Rudolph wasn't even a part of Christmas until 1939. The original story was written by Robert L. May, and today his little tale of a red-nose reindeer has become a part of the holiday celebrations around the globe. Pretty heady stuff, right?
He wrote the story under assignment, as a project for retailer Montgomery Ward. They'd been buying coloring books to give away every Christmas, and found that it was cheaper to simply create their own books for distribution. May almost named his reindeer Reginald, according to legend, and had to talk his boss into the idea of a reindeer with a red nose. Montgomery Ward distributed 2.5 million copies that first Christmas.
In the story, Rudolph is born with a glowing red nose that's different from the other deer. For this he is ridiculed and ostracized. But when Santa asks Rudolph to lead his sleigh one Christmas Eve, Rudolph is re-branded as a hero.
Simple story, very easy to relate to, memorable character. May hit a grand-slam with Rudolph. The story inspired the song, and the song is a prominent feature of every single holiday season. It was a number one Billboard hit in 1949 and it's been repeated every December. The song was released in 1949. It was the second best-selling album until the 1980s.
Rudolph's story became even more popular when it became a TV special. It's so popular, it re-appears every year...and it was made back in 1964.
You know the special I'm talking about. It's a stop-animation marvel that gives Rudolph an entirely new backstory. In this story, he runs away from home and meets a misfit elf who also doesn't belong. On their journey they find an entire island of misfit toys and run afoul of the Abominable Snowman.
It's the same every year...now. But after the first broadcast, the story was changed. At the end, Santa drops the misfit toys down to the houses. Originally, he was dropping wrapped presents. This change was prompted by the viewers, who wanted to know what happened to the toys. You can see the characters from the movie in the 2001 special, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and the Island of Misfit Toys.
The character Rudolph turns 75 this holiday season. The 1964 special is the longest-running Christmas special in TV. And now you know that it's also a book, a story written by one guy with a boss and a job. Maybe Christmas miracles really do happen after all.