Cookies help us deliver our Services. By using our Services, you agree to our use of cookies. Learn More.

Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer Almost Never Happened. Here's Why

"You know Dasher and Dancer and Prancer and Vixen / Comet and Cupid and Donner and Blitzen / But do you recall / The most famous reindeer of all?" Sure you do. Everyone does. Of all the countless classic Christmas stories, Rudolph's tale is one of the most popular and enduring. Kids and adults alike can rattle off his origin story like they're retelling their own pasts: After being shunned as a young fawn for his bright red nose, Rudolph is hand-picked by Santa Claus himself to lead his sleigh on a particularly stormy Christmas Eve. Lighting the way like a beacon of hope, Rudolph becomes a permanent fixture on Santa's team.

Rudolph creator Robert L. May's childhood memories of being bullied by other kids influenced the oft-retold story, and plenty of people still relate to Rudolph's struggles with being an outcast. Indeed, May wanted Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer to be a Christmas tale people from all walks of life could appreciate, a lesson in the dangers of vanity kids could grow up with — and yet, it almost didn't come to be. A world without Rudolph would cause a lot of trouble for Santa, so what exactly was it that nearly prevented May's classic from coming to fruition?

The red nose knows

In 1919, the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution finally brought the temperance movement's long-sought dream to life, placing a prohibition on alcohol in America. That didn't stop bootleggers and speakeasies from cropping up across the nation, creating a stronger culture around alcohol than there'd ever been. So it was that in 1933, the government came to terms with the futility of prohibition, repealing it with the 21st Amendment.

What does any of that have to do with an innocent children's Christmas story like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer? Well, May came up with the reindeer in 1939, a mere six years after alcohol reclaimed its legal place in American culture. Not every part of that culture was positive, however. Indeed, it became common to associate red noses with drunkenness and chronic alcoholism. Red noses. See where the problem comes in? Fun uncles aside, the last thing kids need is to draw parallels between a joyous holiday and adults steeped in booze.

Of course, that wasn't even close to May's intention for the story, but his idea was turned away nonetheless; the publisher didn't want to risk older readers making the connection. Luckily, May had just the right friend to turn his fortunes around: Denver Gillen, an illustrator. A picture is worth a thousand words, as they say, and so May asked Gillen to make the reindeer look as cute as possible. The rest is history, and Rudolph is guiding Santa's sleigh to this very day. An underdog creator and an underdog creation — what could be easier to root for than that?