With holiday cheer in the air, TIME takes a closer look at some of the weird stories behind our favorite seasonal tunes.
As an example, the song that celebrates “the most famous” reindeer of the last 100 years was based on a character created for a department store.
And not just any department store: Montgomery Ward was a retail giant in the middle part of the last century. In 1939, a staff copywriter named Robert L. May was given an assignment to create a character for a line of holiday-themed coloring books the company wanted to peddle to kids.
May came up with a story about a plucky reindeer who saves Christmas—after rejecting several names (like Rollo), he decided to call his creation Rudolph. The coloring book was an huge success, selling millions of copies in the years that followed.
Ten years later, May contacted a brother-in-law, a Jewish songwriter by the name of Johnny Marks to write a song based on his original coloring-book story. Released in time for the holiday season, Gene Autry’s version of “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” was the top-charting song during Christmas of 1949.