Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer Strikes Back

Rudolph The Red Nosed ReindeerI don’t care if Target has put away their ornaments and replaced them with hearts already. I’m a Catholic, which means it’s still Christmas season until Jesus gets baptized next Sunday.

The benefit of celebrating Christmas in the commercial “off-season” is that now you can get the Christmas stuff for much cheaper. So before I get into my argument with the story itself, let me explain why you should buy the Read and Hear Little Golden Book version of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer:

  1. It’s illustrated by Richard Scarry, who is my children’s favorite illustrator.
  2. It has a real record in it. If you still have a record player, this is a good excuse to use it & show your kids how it works. If you don’t have one, they’re probably about the same price as the book: $5.00? Or free from someone’s attic.
  3. If your children are obsessed with reindeer (like mine), you might want a recording to help read this aloud before you lose your voice.

My two year old became obsessed with reindeer this year, so I’ve had a lot of time to contemplate the “deeper meaning” of this classic, cliche tale of the glorified reject. It’s a bizarre moral that I’ve seen rehashed in many children’s books, like Bear in Pink Underwear. You know the story: the reindeer make fun of the weird one & kick him out. Suddenly a crisis comes along. The rejected one performs admirably & saves the day. After the victory, the rejected one is carried on everyone else’s shoulders and fed grapes. At least, that’s what it looks like in my head. But they’re frozen grapes because it’s the North Pole.

My children are two and four years old. In their minds, characters like Rudolph are mostly just visuals that provide plenty of fodder for their imaginations. They love to pretend that one of them is Rudolph and the other is Santa. Then they switch. At this stage, our morality lessons don’t often go much beyond saying: “Was that nice or mean?” “How would you feel if you were Rudolph?” “Was that a good choice or a bad choice?” I am huge stickler to the idea that there are no bad people (or reindeer or elves), only people who make bad choices or good choices. And real morality is much more complicated: there are plenty of legal choices that still have bad consequences for others, and some choices for justice that are socially discouraged or legally outlawed. At my kids’ current development stage, we haven’t gotten there yet.

But at some point soon, I plan to start the “What if” scenarios: What if you were Santa and saw the reindeer teasing Rudolph? What if you were one of the reindeer and your friends were teasing Rudolph? What if Rudolph’s nose wasn’t bright enough and the reindeer still teased him?

I think the whole “Rudolph complex” is messed up. The story seems to say that it’s okay for the reindeer to tease someone until he becomes necessary. This is the same problem that comes up over & over again in issues of social justice: If you have middle class black friends or co-workers, then it’s okay to disparage and neglect black neighborhoods. You are a woman with a college degree, so it’s okay to look down on mothers who choose work over breastfeeding their children (or vice versa). The most socially potent racism and sexism is not some crafty construct created by a cigar-smoking ring of evil white men in one room trying to conquer the world. It’s perpetuated by any culture which values some people by hating others: black people move out of the ghetto in droves believing all-black neighborhoods are genuinely inferior; women gossip about other women who don’t meet their narrow standard of womanhood. These attitudes become affinity groups, and after time they create policies, and then the hatred becomes enshrined in the institutions until they are abolished or reformed. The worst part is that the reindeer exclude Rudolph for what seems like something insignificant that can’t (and shouldn’t) be changed.

But we can change our attitudes. We can change the rules. We can see others as equals, include them, ask them to include us, and make amends. Because most of the time, when you have some weather emergency that only a “freak” with a red nose can fix, you can’t expect the person you humiliated to come running to save you as soon as you ask! (I say this with the voice of someone who has been humiliated) What if Rudolph had said no? Even if the other reindeer didn’t like him, his difference was a gift that needed to be shared to benefit others. That is the true moral of the story to me: everyone has something to share. Excluding others ultimately creates a narrower world for yourself and everyone else.

How do you discuss this with your children? Have you ever felt like a red nosed reindeer?


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