May told his story in an article for the Gettysburg Times in 1975. It all began, he wrote, on a cold January morning in 1939 when he was called into his supervisor's office and asked to come up with a concept for a Christmas promotion aimed at children — "an animal story," his boss suggested, "with a main character like Ferdinand the Bull." May agreed to give it a try.
Inspired in part by his daughter's fascination with the deer at the local zoo, he invented a tale about an outcast reindeer with a shiny, red nose who dreamed of pulling Santa's sleigh. His supervisor rejected the idea at first, but May kept working on it, and in August 1939, barely a month after his wife had passed away, finished the final draft of the story that had come to be called "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer."
"I called Barbara and her grandparents into the living room and read it to them," he later wrote. "In their eyes I could see that the story accomplished what I had hoped."
The rest is history. Sort of.
The alternate version
The alternate version of events in which May makes up the story to help his daughter cope with her mother's terminal illness appears to have originated in a book published in 2001 called Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas by Ace Collins. In Collins' rendering, the moment of creation took place on a bleak December night in 1938 when 4-year-old Barbara May turned to her father and asked, "Why isn't my mommy just like everybody else's mommy?"
May was at a loss. Collins continues:
But on that cold, windy night, even with every reason to cry and complain, Bob wanted his daughter to somehow understand that there was hope ... and that being different didn't mean you had to be ashamed. Most of all, he wanted her to know she was loved. Drawing from his own life experiences, the copywriter made up a story about a reindeer with a large, bright red nose. As as little Barbara listened, May described in story form not only the pain felt by those who were different but also the joy that can be found when someone discovers his special place in the world.
Which, while I'm sure it accurately portrays some of the emotions in play, directly contradicts Bob May's own account of what transpired. I contacted Ace Collins and asked him where he had gotten his information. He replied that it had come to him in the form of letters and documents supplied by a Montgomery Ward PR person just before the company went out of business in 2001. Collins said his informant claimed this was the "real" Rudolph story, as opposed to the "legend" pushed by the company over the years. For his own part, Collins feels the account is "as truthful as there is."
I suspect Bob May's children would disagree, seeing as how they, too, have been called upon to tell the story of Rudolph's origin again and again over the years, and their accounts — even Barbara's — have always matched their father's to a T. We can't ask Bob May for clarification, unfortunately. The creator of "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer" passed away at the age of 71 in 1976.
Rudolph himself turns 75 in January 2014.
• Santa's Seventh Reindeer: Donner or Donder?
• Are All of Santa's Reindeer Female?
• "12 Days of Christmas" a Secret Catechism Song?
• Are Poinsettias Poisonous?
• "The Night Before Christmas" Parodies
Sources and further reading:
Rudolph Didn't Get Off to Flying Start
Gainesville Sun, 14 December 1982
Rudolph's Older Sister Wants Reindeer's Creator Remembered
Lakeland Ledger, 26 December 1981
May, Creator of Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Dead
Associated Press, 12 August 1976
Robert May Tells the Story of How Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer Came into Being
Gettysburg Times, 22 December 1975
Rudolph Creator Happy but Harried
Associated Press, 18 December 1948
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
Chicago Tribune, 17 December 1950
Stores Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas
By Ace Collins (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001)
Last updated 11/29/13