Sometimes the spirit of Christmas is found in the unlikeliest of places, such as in the heart of one of those so-called “fat cat” rich guys who allegedly exploit their workers at every opportunity.

Every Christmas for years the (then) giant retail and catalogue company, Montgomery Ward, gave away coloring books to its customers’ children, but in 1939 senior management wanted to create an original Christmas storybook as a goodwill gesture, and to save money. The task was handed to Robert May, a lowly ad copywriter in Montgomery Ward’s marketing department.

May was asked to make an animal the central character, so he chose a reindeer because his four-year-old daughter, Barbara, loved visiting the deer in the zoo. Drawing on his lonely childhood, the result of extreme shyness, May wrote of a deer named Rudolph, who, because of his shiny nose, was ostracized by his fellow reindeer, who would “laugh at him and call him names,” and never let him “play in any reindeer games.” But one foggy Christmas Eve, Santa said to Rudolph, because of “your nose so bright, won’t you guide my sleigh tonight?” Rudolph did, and the other grateful reindeer “shouted out with glee, Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer, you’ll go down in history!”

May ran the verses by Barbara to ensure their childhood appeal, completing it in time for Christmas, and 2.5 million copies were handed out to the store’s delighted shoppers. It was so popular Maxton Publishers bought the distribution rights to it and it became a bestseller.

Then in 1948, May’s brother-in-law, the songwriter Johnny Marks, whose previous hits included Brenda Lee’s version of “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” put an adaptation of May’s poem to music, and although it was turned down by two of the then-biggest singing stars, Bing Crosby and Dinah Shore, Gene Autry, “The Singing Cowboy,” took a chance on it, and it was released in 1949. Soon “Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer” became the number one song on the pop charts, and eventually the second best-selling Christmas song ever, after Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas.”

The royalties from both the published book and the Christmas song were enormous, but as a paid employee of Montgomery Ward, May had no claim to a dime of that money. Further, May was a single parent whose struggles to support his young daughter were worsened by the huge medical expenses his wife had run up before dying of cancer.

And so, Sewell Avery, the president of Montgomery Ward, signed over to May total copyright ownership of the book and song, and May lived comfortably off the royalties until he died in 1976.

This, dear readers, is a true story and the true “Spirit of Christmas.”

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