Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’s creator didn’t have a very shiny nose, but he was a Jewish guy with a very, ahem, prominent beak.
Some of the West’s ugliest, most foundational, stereotypes haunted Robert Lewis May’s life. Yet his saga tells a lovely Yuletide tale about a best-selling Christmas song romanticizing a rescued underdog, that actually rescued a hopelessly romantic underdog—May himself.
’Twas the month after Christmas, 1938, and the great retailers at Montgomery Ward department stores were already preparing for Christmas… 1939. Robert May was an advertising editor for the company famous for coining the phrase “satisfaction guaranteed or your money back” in 1875.
Founded in 1872 as a mail order business, Montgomery Ward opened more than 500 department stores during the Roaring ’20s. This overexpansion threatened the company when the Great Depression began. But by 1936, the company had recovered, becoming America’s largest retailer.
Back then, department stores were not only grand shrines of shopping, they were cultural phenomena—as defining as Disney or Apple or Facebook is today. The great retailers weren’t just moving goods. They weren’t just entertaining customers. They were shaping Americans’ identities: their likes and dislikes, their emotions and memories, their deepest desires and highest aspirations. The essential tour guides to this experience were the ad-men—and they were men—America’s id ticklers—and expanders.
May knew he was a walking cliché. This 34-year-old husband with a 4-year-old daughter and a mediocre job felt saddled by debts and doubts. Instead of producing the great American novel he dreamed of writing while at Dartmouth, class of 1926, he was churning out forgettable sales promotions for white shirts and silky sheets. And on that depressing January day when his boss summoned him, May felt particularly crushed because his wife was dying of cancer.
“Bob,” he later recalled his boss saying. “I’ve got an idea. For years our stores have been buying those little Christmas giveaway coloring books from local peddlers. I think we can save a lot of money if we create one ourselves. Could you come up with a better booklet we could use?” The boss wanted a cute animal like Ferdinand the Bull—the hero of a children’s story written in 1935, selling 3,000 a copies weekly by 1938.
May combined three elements. First, his daughter Barbara loved the deer at the Chicago zoo. Second, crafting a parable, he remembered the taunts he endured as a shy, short, awkward Jewish kid—and his ongoing insecurities. Why not make an “underdog—a loser… triumphant in the end,” he thought, imagining an Ugly Duckling-type stepping up to power Santa’s sleigh. Then, looking out onto the flickering street lights on a foggy winter night, Eureka: “Suddenly I had it! A nose! A bright red nose that would shine through fog like a floodlight.”
The boss’ first reaction… “For gosh sakes, Bob, can’t you do better than that?”
Looking at photos suggests why May hit this idea on the nose: his, while not huge, stood out. May was pretty tight-lipped about his physical self-image and his Jewish heritage. One of the men who would popularize the Rudolph phenomenon, the publisher of the now-classic poem, Harry Elbaum, was franker: “All my life I’ve been kidded about my own nose,” he later recalled, “so Rudolph won my sympathy from the start.”
There is no scientific evidence that Jews have bigger noses than most Mediterranean peoples. Two other things, however, are certain. When a Jew has a big nose, confirmation bias kicks in, it’s interpreted as demonstrating Jewishness not randomness. Second, medieval demonization not anthropological observation linked Jews with big noses.
Jews have always been a peculiar target, because they look like other Westerners yet act so differently, when they wish. Jews frustrate the haters when they fit in too much—and when they stand out too much. Caricaturing them as physically different, as visibly exotic, makes them easier targets.
When anti-Jewish caricatures first emerged in Christian art more than a thousand years ago, doctrinaire artists depicted Jews wearing peculiar “pointed hats”—which they never actually wore. In Demonizing the Other: Antisemitism, Racism, and Xenophobia, the late historian Robert Wistrich explains that by the 13th century, hooked-nose Jews started appearing in imagined scenes of Jesus’ crucifixion. These ugly beaks linked Jews to witches, devils, heretics, Muslims, and blacks—this pileup of prejudices is what modern scholars call intersectionality.
In this Rudolph story, May, Elbaum, and Johnny Marks, who wrote the Rudolph lyrics we all know, executed a Jew-Jitsu. In an instinctive U-turn other victims of discrimination should learn, they turned a mark of shame into a point of pride. Jimmy Durante—an Italian—did it with his “schnozzola.” Jack Benny did it with Jews’ supposed cheapness. And Reese Witherspoon did it in Legally Blonde with her smarts despite her looks. By exaggeration, validation, then veneration, May and company made the Jewish nose noble at Christmas-time decades before Barbra Streisand made it beautiful in Hollywood.
Rudolph’s red nose first has other reindeer laughing, calling “him names,” never letting “poor Rudolph play in any reindeer games.” “Then one foggy Christmas Eve” Rudolph with his “nose so bright” helps guide Santa’s “sleigh tonight.”
That song, however, came a decade later. First, in July, 1939, May’s wife died. By August, his boss was sympathetically encouraging him to drop the project—but May sought distraction and salvation. That Christmas, improved by Denver Gillan’s illustrations and young Barbara May’s feedback, Rudolph debuted, appearing in 2.4 million copies of a coloring book. After a break to respect wartime paper shortages, in 1946, Montgomery Ward distributed 3.6 million copies.
Then, May’s personal Christmas miracle. His boss, the Scrooge-like, Franklin-Roosevelt-hating, Liberty Leaguer Sewell Avery, suddenly gave May all the rights to Rudolph. In 1947, Elbaum, the admittedly big-nosed and big-hearted publisher, mass marketed the Rudolph poem. In 1948, May’s brother-in-law Johnny Marks wrote those memorable lyrics. Alas, neither Bing Cosby nor Dinah Shore wanted to record them. In 1949, the singing cowboy Gene Autry did, ultimately selling over 25 million copies, second only to Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas.”
It’s a lovely American mystery: Why did Jews write so many of the greatest Christmas songs—Johnny Marks also wrote “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” and “A Holly Jolly Christmas.” It’s an inspiring immigrant story, about America’s welcoming arms, telling the world, as Emma Lazarus did: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” It’s a typical Jewish story, about the wandering Jews’ sensitive ears, learning how to master the cultural lingo of their different habitats over the millennia. And, frankly, it’s a complicated Christian story, about justified religious finger-wagging, warning that Christmas today has become so commercialized, so universalized, even Jews who don’t believe in Jesus can become high priests of American Christmasdom.
May, whose second wife was Catholic, dodged the ecumenical questions. He simply was proud that “Today children all over the world read and hear about the little deer who started out in life as a loser, just as I did. But they learn that when he gave himself for others, his handicap became the very means through which he received happiness.” Thus, Rudolph’s mass marketing and altruistic message, not just Rudolph’s gift-delivering-heroics, “will go down in history.”
For Further Reading
Robert L. May, “Robert May Tells How Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Came into Being,” 1975.
Jessica Pupovac, “Writing ‘Rudolph’: The Original Red-Nosed Manuscript,” 2013.
Sara Lipton, Dark Mirror: The Medieval Origins of anti-Jewish Iconography, 2014.