An American businessman who was known as “The Reindeer King” created the story of Santa’s Reindeer as we know it.
The Reindeer King
Millions of people know Clement Clarke Moore’s poem “The Night Before Christmas,” written in New York in 1822 and believed to describe Santa’s reindeer-driven sleigh for the first time. But Santa’s reindeer have their own story and history – and that story is tied up with Carl Loman.
Carl Loman’s principal intention was not delighting children around the world, but creating an appetite for what he hoped would become the “new beef”. In the 1920s, the Lomen Reindeer Co. owned more than a quarter-million reindeer, and Lomen was known as “the reindeer king”. He envisioned herds of millions of reindeer in Alaska, with reindeer ranches that would rival the cattle ranches of Texas.
An ingenious marketer, he successfully persuaded several railroads to serve reindeer meat, movie stars to wear reindeer clothing and pet owners to buy reindeer dog food. But his history-changing move was to partner with Macy’s department in a promotional Christmas parade led by Santa, his reindeer, a sleigh and several Sami herders in their vibrant traditional dress.
Eventually, similar parades were held in cities around the country, and a meme was born. Lomen is said to have further accelerated his marketing efforts by planting fake children’s letters in local newspapers, the fictitious children asking for Santa and his reindeer to visit their towns!
Reindeer meat never took off in America for many reasons, most notably pressure from the cattle lobby and changes in laws about who could own reindeer in the U.S. – the right eventually going in 1937 to indigenous American cultures, excluding even the Sami.
Fun fact: Swedish astronaut Christer Fuglesang was not allowed to bring reindeer jerky with him on board a shuttle mission as it was “weird” for the Americans so soon before Christmas. He had to go with moose instead.
Red as a beet
Rudolph originated as an idea for a promotional gimmick by a department store.
The Montgomery Ward stores had been buying and distributing coloring books to customers at Christmastime every year. One department head saw creating a giveaway booklet of their own as a way to save money. Robert May, who had a knack for writing children’s stories and limericks, was tapped to create the booklet.
May’s boss didn’t like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer at first, as he felt a red nose implied the reindeer had been drinking! “Can’t you come up with anything better?” the boss asked, according to a May’s 1975 telling in a story published in the Gettysburg Times.
May responded by taking Denver Gillen, a friend from Montgomery Ward’s art department, to the Lincoln Park Zoo to sketch some deer. Gillen’s illustrations of a red-nosed reindeer overcame the hesitancy of May’s superiors, and the Rudolph story was approved. Months into the project, May’s wife died from cancer. Robert became a widower and a single father. His boss offered to take the reindeer project off this plate. But May refused. “I needed Rudolph now more than ever,” he later wrote.
Montgomery Ward distributed 2.4 million copies of the Rudolph booklet in 1939. While Rudolph was hitting it big, things grew worse for May. He was living on a copywriter’s salary and spent years buried in debt from his wife’s medical bills. After World War II, Montgomery Ward’s then-CEO Sewell Avery gave May the rights to Rudolph.
It just so happened that May’s brother-in-law was a songwriter. May talked him into writing a song about Rudolph. That song was picked up by none other than the singing cowboy, Gene Autry. It sold more than 25 million copies and paved the way for the classic stop-animation film.
Thanks to Rudolph, Robert May’s family was taken care of financially through the end of his life and beyond. And he always delighted in being the man who introduced the misfit reindeer and his joyful tale to the world.