An advertising writer for the Montgomery Ward department store created Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.
Store management wanted something unusual to distribute to shoppers during the 1939 Christmas season, and one of its writers, Robert May, suggested an illustrated poem for children.
Everybody knew about Santa’s eight flying reindeer from Clement Moore’s poem but some wondered how Santa flew in rain and fog.
To Robert May, the question suggested a ninth reindeer, one who could provide illumination with his nose on stormy nights.
In his first draft, May called him Rollo the Red-Nosed Reindeer.
The Montgomery Ward people loved the poem, but not the name, or the next name, Reginald.
So May compiled a list of names starting with R and read them to his four-year-old daughter. When he came to Rudolph, she smiled, and so did May’s corporate bosses, who then distributed 2.4 million copies of the illustrated booklet to their stores around the country.
In 1947, one of May’s friends with musical aspirations, Johnny Marks, put the poem to music and started shopping it around.
Singer after singer turned it down. Finally Marks sent it to an over-the-hill cowboy movie star named Gene Autry, who decided he had nothing to lose in recording it.
In the Christmas season of 1949, the record flew like a reindeer to the top of the charts.
Since then, more than 300 different artists have recorded it in dozens of languages, selling close to 100 million copies of the song and spawning both a popular animated TV special and another element in the ever-growing Santa Claus mythology.