You know Dasher and Dancer and Prancer and Vixen, and by now you certainly know Rudolph as well. But Rudolph wasn't always the star of the show—he didn't even exist until 1939, while the rest of Santa's coursers have been around since Clement Moore's 'Twas the Night Before Christmas, which was written in 1823. Here are 12 other facts you might not know about the world's most famous reindeer.
1. Rudolph was created for Montgomery Ward.
In 1939, execs for the Montgomery Ward department store decided they needed a character for the freebie coloring books they were handing out to kids who visited Santa. That character ended up being Rudolph, who was an immediate hit with the kiddies. Montgomery Ward gave out 2.4 million copies of the Rudolph booklet in the first year alone.
2. The writer who created Rudolph was grieving the loss of his wife.
Robert May, a copywriter for Montgomery Ward’s mail order catalog division, was the employee tasked with writing a story and creating a marketable character for the coloring book. May started the process in early 1939, but that summer, his wife died from cancer, leaving him a widower with a 4-year-old daughter. Though his boss tried to reassign the project, May insisted on finishing it himself. “I needed Rudolph more than ever,” he later admitted. He completed the story in August. Though Montgomery Ward could have kept the copyright for themselves, they handed it over to a financially struggling May in 1947.
3. Rudolph could have been Rollo or Reginald instead.
4. Robert May's original Rudolph story is a bit different than the song.
In the story May told in that original coloring book, Santa finds Rudolph while delivering presents to the reindeer village. In the story, Santa often had problems delivering gifts because no one remembered to leave lights on for him—and in Rudolph’s dark house, Santa “tripped on the rug, and fell flat on his back.” When he discovers Rudolph and his glowing nose, a light bulb of his own goes off, and he invites Rudolph to help him with the rest of his drop-offs. Dutiful Rudy leaves his parents a note, then helps save the day.
5. Rudolph almost used a different method to guide Santa's sleigh.
Instead of having a red, glowing nose that cut through the fog, May considered giving Rudolph large, headlight-like eyes that would light the way. After much consideration, he decided mean kids would be more likely to make fun of a red nose than huge eyes.
6. People in Finland know Rudolph as Petteri Punakuono.
Petteri is Rudy's Finnish counterpart. The Finnish legend of Santa Claus (a.k.a. Joulupukki) doesn't name his reindeer the same way we do—Dasher, Dancer, Donner, and so on—so the beginning of the song doesn't start out the same way. Instead of running through the laundry list of reindeer, the Finnish version translates to something like, "You remember Cinderella, Snow White, and Sleeping Beauty, Little Red Riding Hood and the Grey Wolf, but this reindeer is often forgotten."
7. Rudolph has a son named Robbie.
At least he does according to the BBC. They developed three cartoons based on Rudolph's offspring, but the name of Robbie's famous dad is never actually mentioned. The plot line tells us that the villain of the series, Blitzen, can't stand to hear Rudolph's name. In reality, it's because the BBC couldn't get permission to use it (or didn't want to pay to use it).
If you haven't seen the British version but still remember Robbie, that's because Fox Family ran the show for a few years in the early 2000s with redubbed voices, including Ben Stiller as Robbie, Hugh Grant as Blitzen, Britney Spears as Donner, and Brad Garrett as Prancer.
8. "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," the song, was recorded a decade after the character was invented.
It was May's brother-in-law, Johnny Marks, who wrote the lyrics for the famous song; Gene Autry recorded it. Autry nearly passed on the tune, but his wife urged him to give it a shot. Since Autry recorded it, the tune has sold more than 150 million copies.
9. Songwriter Johnny Marks specialized in Christmas songs.
We have him to thank for Rudolph, obviously, but also "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day," "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree," "Silver and Gold," and "A Holly Jolly Christmas" (in addition to a bunch of lesser-known Christmas songs). The irony? Marks was Jewish.
10. Rankin/Bass wasn't the first production company to feature Rudolph onscreen.
Though the 1964 Rankin/Bass stop-motion TV special is the longest-running holiday special ever, it wasn't the first to bring Rudolph to the screen. That honor goes to Fleischer Studios, which copyrighted a cartoon in 1948 as more advertising for Montgomery Ward.
11. The puppets featured in the Rankin/Bass TV special were lost, then rediscovered in 2006.
When they resurfaced, they did so on Antiques Roadshow in 2006. Well, not all of them—just Santa and Rudolph. A woman who worked for Rankin/Bass had stored them in her attic since at least the 1970s. Prior to that, she let her kids play with them. Rudolph lost his red nose, and let’s not even talk about how Santa lost his eyebrows. The puppets were fully restored after their trip to Antiques Roadshow and have since been displayed at the Center for Puppetry Arts.
12. The "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" song is still copyrighted.
Along with "Jingle Bells," "Deck the Halls," and "Silent Night," “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” is a Christmas staple. Unlike those other three songs, however, “Rudolph” is still copyrighted and his image is trademarked. The makers of Rudolph’s Reserve ale found this out the hard way in 2003. They later changed the name to “Rude Elf’s Reserve.”