By Mike Patrick
Bob May, born to a Jewish family in New York in 1905, left for Chicago when the family lost all their wealth during the Great Depression. He found low-paying employment as an in-house advertising copywriter for Montgomery Ward. However, life became harder a few years later when a doctor diagnosed his wife, Evelyn, with cancer in 1937.
Montgomery Ward made it a practice to give away millions of coloring books to children each Christmas. Early in 1939, The company asked Bob to create its own book around Christmas in order to save money. His boss suggested basing it on an animal. Later that summer, Evelyn died of cancer, leaving him to raise their four-year–old daughter, Barbara. Bob’s boss offered him the opportunity to give up the task of creating the Christmas book, but Bob wanted to continue. He drew on memories of his early, shy childhood as he wrote the poem. Some writers have reflected on Bob’s being bullied as a kid. He based the main character after Barbara’s favorite animal to watch at the Chicago zoo—a deer.
Still grieving his wife’s death from the previous month, Bob completed the book by August and read it to Barbara and Evelyn’s parents. That Christmas, Montgomery Ward distributed 2.4 million copies of “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer.” Because of the paper shortage during World War II, Montgomery Ward shelved the book until 1946, when 3.6 million copies were distributed. Within a year, the company gave Bob the copyright free and clear.
In 1948, Johnny Marks, his brother-in-law, adapted the poem and wrote music for a song about Rudolph. Popular singers like Bing Crosby and Dinah Shore declined to record the song, but singing cowboy Gene Autry recorded it and “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer” became a best selling Christmas song, second only to “White Christmas.”
Through the years people have offered lessons to learn from Rudolph. For example, it’s okay to be different; and, everyone deserves love. One lesson that I like focuses on Rudolph’s forgiving the other reindeer and saving Christmas on that foggy night with his shiny, red nose. It reminds us that God saved the world when his son came that first Christmas to forgive us all. Perhaps this Christmas you could forgive that certain person and save the season.
“…As they shouted out with glee
…You’ll go down in history.”
Mike Patrick retired as Chaplain and Ministry Education Coordinator after 27 years at Hendrick Medical Center.