I have in my possession a cellophane-wrapped, unopened DVD of Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer, [i] that 1964 classic, stop-motion animated television special which I had to wait for every year, scouring the newspaper TV schedule each Sunday after Thanksgiving, plotting my weekly watching agenda around it and the other iconic Christmas shows. There was no recording it, no VHS, no DVD, no DVR, no On-Demand. We all waited with bated holiday anticipation.
Now, though, I refuse to open my personal copy.
“Yeah, Dad, we know, we know. But can we just watch it anyway?” My kids’ response to the intro of my annual, “You know, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is …” tirade as the season was upon us.
“We know, we know,” accompanied by an appropriate eye-roll.
I suspect you know the story. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was born with a nose that glows red and one foggy Christmas Eve Santa chooses him to lead the team pulling his sleigh, flying all around the world. Rudolph saves Christmas. Blah, blah, blah.
The TV special in 1964 was based on the chart-topping song recorded by Gene Autry in 1949. The song was written by Johnny Marks, brother-in-law to the original author of the poem, Robert L. May, who wrote it in 1939 at the height of the Great Depression as a children’s book advertisement gimmick for the Montgomery Ward store in Chicago.
Here’s my tirade.
Rudolph is born with what his community considers a defect—a disability—his red nose making him different than everyone else. Out of fear or embarrassment or shame his parents decide to keep him hidden at home until it’s finally time for reindeer school when they fashion a mudball to cover up his nose.
Who does that? What kind of parents are these anyway?
Well into the 1930s the eugenics movement, a pseudo-scientific system of beliefs and practices aimed at improving the genetic quality of the human population was accepted in the United States and many places around the world. By 1939, when the original Rudolph poem was written, the Nazi regime in Germany had developed eugenics into a system of classifying people and euthanizing those who didn’t measure up to their arbitrary standards.
The first to be euthanized in Nazi Germany’s Aktion T4 [ii] program were those with mental and physical disabilities—the first genocide victims of the Holocaust—driven around Berlin in a darkened, sealed bus with the exhaust fumes piped back inside until their lives ended.
Should we be surprised that in 1939, or even in 1964, Rudolph’s parents keep him hidden? Either out of shame brought on by those around them or by fear that should he be found he’d be taken away? Keeping hidden those who are “different” was a common practice in the US until the dismantling of state institution systems in the 1980s leading to the independent living movement. We were, in fact, told by some professionals in 1988 when Lindsay was born that we might want to do exactly that, put her in an institution, go on with our lives, have another baby if we wanted. [iii]
In 2000, I took Lindsay’s younger sister, Lacey, to visit the recently opened US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC. One exhibit explained the Nazi policy of removing children with disabilities from their families, another showed toys that had been taken from kids during those monstrous times.
I asked my 9-year-old, “Do you know what this means, Lacey?”
“Yes, they would take away Ted,” her favorite stuffed bear which never left her side.
“Well, yes, probably but they would also take Lindsay away from us.”
More than 20 years later she still remembers that moment as an emotionally crushing realization. (But I figure, hey, an extra year of therapy for my now adult children and they’ll be fine, right?!?!)
Rudolph tries his best to fit during his reindeer games flight attempt until the excitement of hearing the cute doe with the long eyelashes, Clarice, say she likes him causes his prosthetic nose to pop off. Nose uncovered, disability revealed, bullying begins.
All of the other reindeer
Used to laugh and call him names
They never let poor Rudolph
Join in any reindeer games.
“For crying out loud! Get away … get away from me!” his friend Fireball reacts.
Comet, the reindeer games coach enters the scene with his deep authoritative voice, “Now, now, now … what’s the matter?” but when he sees the glowing red nose he shrieks, “Aggghhh!”
“Donner, you should be ashamed of yourself,” the Jolly Old Elf himself scold’s Rudolph’s father, “What a pity. He had such a good takeoff too.” Donner’s head hangs low as Santa turns his back and walks away.
What a horrible story!
“Aww, dad, can’t we just watch it anyway?”
Unable to tolerate the taunting and name calling and rejection, Rudolph runs away and meets Hermey, an elf who wants to be a dentist rather than a toymaker, Hermey who “feels different” because of his life orientation, Hermey who is forced out of Santa’s workshop, shunned from the community, forced to flee rather than live a life as a closeted dentist pretending to be a toymaker.
They runaway together and along the way connect with old Yukon Cornelius who is a bit quirky emotionally having spent his time solitarily prospecting for silver and gold. Confronted by the Abominable Snow Monster of the North, a misunderstood soul who has been forced to live alone in a cave due to his unacceptable behaviors, Rudolph, Hermey and Yukon flee for their lives.
They land on the “Island of Misfit Toys” where Santa and his elves have dumped all of the unwanted, “broken” toys that no children will love. Afterall, who wants a Charlie-in-the-Box or a spotted elephant, a train with square wheels or a water pistol that squirts jelly, a cowboy who rides an ostrich, a boat that cannot stay afloat or an airplane that cannot fly? Who wants a pink fire truck? Forced exile to the island for losers.
Are you kidding me? Is there a worse story for us to teach our children?
Rejection and segregation and isolation abound in this story! Inclusion, tolerance, diversity, acceptance, anti-bullying, grace. Where are these qualities? They are absent.
Rudolph’s disability, Hermey’s life-orientation, Yukon’s mental health, Abominable’s antisocial behavior. All those toys sent to a concentration camp because no one could possibly love them.
Rudolph, afraid that his glowing nose will endanger his friends by letting Abominable find them again, leaves the group. He discovers, though, that his parents and Clarice, the eye-lashed doe, have been searching for him and were now trapped in a cave by Abominable who then knocks Rudolph unconscious. The others catch up, Hermey lures Abominable out of the cave, Yukon knocks him out with his prospector’s hammer, and Hermey pulls out all of Abominable’s teeth.
Once everyone is back together at Santa’s workshop, Santa announces that Christmas will be called off this year because of the stormy weather. Rudolph’s nose glows.
“Rudolph, Rudolph, please can you tone it down a bit?! I mean that nose of yours,” he says with disgust which then suddenly becomes a revealed excitement, “That nose! … That beautiful, wonderful nose! … That’ll cut through the murkiest storm they can dig up!”
Then one foggy Christmas Eve
Santa came to say
Santa came to say
"Rudolph, with your nose so bright
Won't you guide my sleigh tonight?"
Won't you guide my sleigh tonight?"
It’s not until the fat old guy with his red suit, bushy beard, and white privilege decides that this defective reindeer can be useful for his mission and suddenly he’s acceptable. Everyone cheers. Hooray!
Hermey can pull teeth, Yukon can live with them in peace, and even toothless Abominable has a purpose as he gently places the star atop the Christmas tree. The misfit toys make it into the sleigh for distribution.
They all live together happily ever after? Please! Only because Santa says so? I don’t think so!
“We know, we know, dad. Now can we watch it please?!”
I consider my unopened copy of this misguided children’s tale an act of resistance, a statement of defiance by a parent of a child with physical and intellectual disabilities who could very easily have fallen prey to the pseudo-ideals which society has historically used against the different among us.
These attitudes are still manifest in some ways in our 21st Century and intolerance could easily reemerge from its covertness if we allow.
I invite you to not watch it this year.
I no longer wait with bated holiday anticipation for Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Call me a Red-Nosed Humbug if you will. I’ve been called worse.
[i] Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Rankin/Bass Productions, 1964. Written by Romeo Muller, directed by Larry Roemer, narrated by Burl Ives. Based on the song, "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" by Johnny Marks.
[ii] Aktion T4 (Action T4) was named for the street address of the German Chancellery department at that address, Tiergartenstraße 4, in the Berlin borough of Tiergarten.
[iii] Our closest facility, Pennhurst State School and Hospital, originally known as the Eastern Pennsylvania State Institution for the Feeble-Minded and Epileptic was finally closed on December 9, 1987, just 4 months before Lindsay’s birth. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pennhurst_State_School_and_Hospital