Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer. I love him. Always have, and always will. How can you not love this shy, endearing, perfectly imperfect red-nosed reindeer who saved the day - or rather, night - with that flashing, bright red, glowing nose?
The story of Rudolph, rejected by his peers because he was different, tugs at our heart strings. He's enchanted millions, both young and old, for nearly 55 years. Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer has been telecast every year since 1964, making it the longest running holiday television special ever. To this day, I still look forward to, and faithfully watch, this classic every year. "How The Grinch Stole Christmas" is a close second, but nothing can compare to the story of that little reindeer with the fluffy tail and big black eyes! It's not officially the Christmas season until I welcome Rudolph, Clarice, Comet, Yukon Cornelius, and Charley In The Box into my living room in late November.
Several years ago, I found myself watching this Christmas classic through a different lens. I was looking at it from a different perspective. This show that I had faithfully watched for 40+ years about a reindeer who I revered, was sending countless negative messages. No longer was I watching through the eyes of an innocent five year old, but rather an adult with a critical eye who was struck by the relentless nasty, mean-spirited messages.
It’s not as if, over nearly half a century of watching, I had never noticed the bullying, shaming, ridicule, ostracizing, etc. that was oh so evident in the show, but the adult in me was suddenly acutely aware of sooo much bad behavior that was exhibited, and tightly woven throughout the entire story. And it bothered me. What kind of a signal is this story sending to millions of impressionable children? Where is the example of the true spirit of Christmas?!
Don't get me wrong. Both the child and the adult in me still enjoy watching this charming, heart-warming tale. There are many redeeming aspects of it and I can sympathize with many of the characters, including poor Rudolph of course. I feel for Hermey the Elf, the misfit toys, and the children who will not get their toys if Santa cannot hit the highway with a bright guiding light.
So I got to thinking, or pondering as it were, about the moral(s) of the story. There are many, and I thought I’d share a few of my observations on the messages being conveyed and the lessons to be learned. For both children and adults alike, there are numerous teachable moments.
Message: Bullying and Shaming Is OK. It's everywhere, from start to finish! From Rudolph's Dad, to his coach, to his reindeer "friends," everyone bullied Rudolph relentlessly! And bullied him bad. They laughed at him and called him names. He became the laughing stock and was excluded from the group. Comet, the coach, who should have been the very one to set the example of acceptance, teamwork and working to one's strengths, shunned him and forbid him to join in any reindeer games. Nice role model, coach!
Rudolph's own Dad, Donner, was ashamed of him and wanted to hide his nose so "you'll be normal." He practically disowned him. Insecure Donner was more concerned about his own reputation and saving himself from embarrassment, than he was about his own son’s struggle.
Even Santa, who under normal circumstances, represents the ultimate in kindness and acceptance, who millions of children look up to and consider a hero, scolds Donner by telling him that he, too “should be ashamed” for having such a freakish son. Then there’s Hermey’s boss who tells him, "shame on you" when he admitted he wanted to be a dentist rather than a toy maker. “Finish your work or you’ll be fired!” he said, and poor Hermey, ridiculed and punished for expressing his presumed pie in the sky hopes and dreams, was left alone while all the other elves went on their break.
Life Lesson: Bullying and shaming are NOT ok. And it will never be ok! Not in 1964 and not in 2064. Stand up to bullies. If you do not, they will always keep you down. Choose inclusion, not exclusion. And put yourself in somebody else’s shoes. They may be bigger or smaller, flats or stilettos, hooves or elf shoes. But wear them - for just one day - and see how it feels.
Message: It’s Bad To Be Different. Be Like Everyone Else Or You’ll Be Shunned. A bird that swims? A choo choo train with square wheels on its caboose? A Charley in the Box? A pink spotted elephant? A water pistol that shoots jelly? The whole lot of them are considered useless freaks simply because they are different. They do not fit societal norms and have therefore, been banished from society and shipped off to the isolated Island of Misfits Toys. An island where they merely exist – sad, lonely and completely forgotten. Misfits who will never have the opportunity to be loved by a child - a child who would see them for what they really are - very special toys, worthy of love who will bring them endless joy. As King Moonraiser said, “A toy is never truly happy until it is loved by a child.”
Life Lesson: It’s perfectly ok to be different. Make no apologies and be proud of your uniqueness! Why on earth would you want to be like everyone else? How boring life would be if we lived in a world of vanilla only. Nothing is as unique, as unique. And besides, “misfits” are usually waaay more interesting than “fits.” Embrace each other’s differences and unique gifts.
Message: You’re Not Good Enough. Who wouldn't feel small, humiliated, and unlovable if they were told over and over that they were not good enough; that they will never amount to anything; that they should be ashamed of themselves for being different? Who wouldn’t want to run away to the only place where they feel they belong – the island of misfits. Having joined forces on their journey, Rudolph and Hermey eventually landed on the judgment-free island. It was an island that provided them, and all the other rejects, with safety and security, where they could count on unconditional love and acceptance by their own posse, whose differences are what actually made them similar.
Life Lesson: You are good enough! You are perfect just the way you are. Find your posse. Surround yourself with only those people who accept you for who you are, flaws and all. Period. End of story.
Message: Don't Expect or Want More For Yourself. Hermey the Elf was intelligent and had high aspirations for himself. He had hopes and dreams of becoming a dentist not an elfin toy maker (not that there's anything wrong with toy makers). He’d rather be pulling teeth, and studying molars, incisors, and bicuspids. But his spirits were squashed by his tyrannical boss who routinely ridiculed and scorned him by telling him that being an elf was his lot in life, and how dare he think that he can make something more of himself. "Not happy in your work? Shame on you!" (There’s that shame again!) Once an elf, always an elf. This is what you are, this is what you will always be, don't strive for more. Since when is there a caste system in Christmas Town?
Life Lesson: Follow your bliss, follow your heart, blaze your own trail. Shoot for the stars. And above all, tune out those naysayers! You want to be a circus clown, a Sherpa, a crocodile wrestler? If it makes your heart sing, than do it damn it! I'd far more prefer that Hermey, DDS perform my root canal than make my Barbie doll. Obvious reasons.
Message: In-De-Pen-Dence. When Hermey meets Rudolph, he proclaims his independence. Having escaped the oppression he suffered under his boss’s watchful eye, he relishes his newfound freedom and autonomy. Yet, ironically, he suggests that the two of them be “independent together.” The wayward elf and reindeer came to rely on each other heavily for support, safety and survival throughout their journey.
Lesson: Independence is wonderful, but so is interdependence. Self-sufficiency is not a bad thing, but know you cannot do everything by yourself. As the song goes, everybody needs somebody sometime. Others are necessary in our lives to care, contribute and comfort.
Message: Redemption. I'd like to think that the characters redeemed themselves by the end of the story by welcoming Rudolph back into the fold and showing remorse for how badly they treated him and how horrible they made him feel. But, did they really redeem themselves? While they did give brief apologies, it was only when they realized that Rudolph was useful to them, did they accept him. Only when the bunch of them, including Santa, realized that they needed him and his glowing nose to achieve their own goals, did they accept him as "normal," and begin to appreciate his non-conformity. When Santa asked Rudolph with his nose so bright, to guide his sleigh on that foggy Christmas Eve, affable Rudolph, of course, happily obliged and agreed to lead the team. He was able to forgive and forget. And it was only because of Rudolph and his special gift, that the mission was accomplished; a mission that was larger than himself.
Life Lesson: Try and make the effort to genuinely say “I’m sorry,” if you’ve wronged someone. Forgive and forget – both not as easy as they sound. And beware of fair weather friends; a true friend stands by you even when it's foggy.
Other than Rudolph, one of the only real heroes in the story is Clarice. Not only did she think Rudolph was cute, which sent him flying for joy, she could also appreciate that his unusual facial feature is what made him so unique and special. Unlike the others, she saw far beneath the surface of Rudolph and overlooked his “defect.” She didn’t care what other people thought. Clarice was one strong, brave, confident doe and the only one who had the courage to stand up for Rudolph and show him caring, compassion and respect from the get go. She was of high moral character and didn't succumb to peer or parent pressure by ostracizing him like all the other insensitive reindeer did, even when her father forbid her from being seen with him. She had integrity. She even put herself in danger by heading out into the snowstorm to search for him. It was no wonder they were attracted to each other. Clarice and Rudolph deserved each other.
Tonight, I will once again watch my favorite Christmas special with its many questionable messages, as I do every year, because it is good to be reminded of how not to treat people as well as how to treat people.
In this joyful season of gift giving, light and love, family and friends, perhaps we can all find it within ourselves to be a little more kind, a little more compassionate, a little more inclusive, and a little more accepting of each other's differences.