Every Tuesday in The Kiddy Pool, Erin Newcomb confronts one of many issues that parents must deal with related to popular culture.
It’s apparently a trend for my children to go through a phase of Rudolph-obsession. Though my husband and I were eager to put away the Christmas things again this year (somehow, we can never quite make it through the season all the way to Epiphany), I see no end in sight to my younger daughter’s love of Rudolph. This Christmas (2014) marked the 50th anniversary of the Rankin and Bass Christmas classic, so clearly my children are not alone in their love for that red-nosed reindeer and his misfit friends.
Much of the film is hard for me to watch; many of the characters are cruel (particularly Rudolph’s father Donner and Santa), and some lines are downright sexist (like when Donner tells the women to leave the search party because “This is man’s work.” Yet in spite of (or, perhaps more frighteningly, because of?) these cultural vestiges, Rudolph’s popularity, like his nose, remains undiminished. Maybe it has something to do with the classic themes of the story—the same traits that draw us to Cinderella and Harry Potter (which is, like Rudolph, another variant of Cinderella). We love the idea of the kind soul, mistreated and misunderstood, who remains good regardless of how he is treated. We love the image of misfits who can teach insiders what love really means and what really matters in life.
Further back even than Cinderella, it’s a kind of Christ story, where when the toys cry out “We’re all misfits!” viewers understand and empathize. Sure the songs are catchy and the characters are cute (I like sweet Clarice best, and my husband prefers Yukon Cornelius), but what really resonates with Rudolph is his special mission—the outcast who redeems himself, his community, and Christmas. I know both of my daughters love that Rudolph can fly and they appreciate his shining nose, but while they can’t articulate a whole lot more than that at this point, I think all of us who admire Rudolph connect to the values he embodies—friendship and perseverance and sacrifice and integrity.
My younger daughter must ask us a dozen times a day to “play Rudolph” with her. She always assigns me Santa, and if I stop saying “Ho ho ho!” she’ll ask me again to be that jolly old elf; my husband gets cast as Hermey, and he’s supposed to go on about his dentistry ambitions. It is, in our household, a rare opportunity for the littler child to direct something (because the elder is well on her way to directing her own productions). When I ask her what she likes best about Rudolph, my toddler always responds “his shiny nose,” and usually I reply with the joke “would you even say it glows?” Generally, she ignores this; she’s pretty busy. But it’s no surprise to me that the light that leads Santa’s sleigh is the light that attracts her to Rudolph.
As Rudolph’s father Donner says, “that beak blinks like a blink’ beacon!” In a secular context, Rudolph lights the way to Christmas, not dispelling the fog but leading Santa and the other reindeer through it. Just maybe that secular light glows so strongly through the years because of its thematic truths and the way it can point to a greater light, the true light of the world in Christ. Rudolph’s light helps Santa bring gifts through the foggy, stormy night, whereas Christ himself can calm the storm or call up another. As a secular representation of Christmas, Rudolph illuminates the ways that we can get mired in the world, its values and pettiness, even as he restores and heals his home communities.
As the true representation of Christmas, Christ is the light, in the world but not of it, destabilizing its values as he restores humanity and offers us a heavenly home. Rudolph, perhaps, is acting out the Christian principle of being the light, and maybe my two-year-old loves him so much because she sees that in him, too—an example of being the light. For the last five decades, Rudolph has been lighting up American Christmases, and while my daughter’s adoration of Santa’s lead reindeer will ultimately fade, I hope that red nose lights her way—and mine—to contemplate the true light of Christmas for many decades to come.