There are plenty of reasons, at this time of year, to hate a Christmas song: You can hate an annoying chorus, despise a celebrity crooner, or just resent the way a tune sticks in your head hours after you heard it at Nordstrom Rack. Or, in the case of the most despicable holiday song of all, you can just read the lyrics. I’m talking, of course, about “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” that annual blight on this season of joy.
If you were under the illusion that Rudolph was an unobjectionable component of December, you are in good company. The tale of Santa’s plucky little fog navigator is a staple of school holiday pageants everywhere, and its easy to see why: Sufficiently secular that it won’t get anyone in trouble, sufficiently simple that the kindergarteners can remember it on stage, the song is cast as an inspiring tale for youngsters, a story about how even the lonely and the left out are part of Christmas’ magic.
Unfortunately, this is not at all what the lyrics actually teach.
Let’s review. There’s this little reindeer with a deformity. We have no evidence that this deformity actually keeps him from his reindeer duties: He has a red, glowing nose. Big deal! It’s not like he has a torn ACL that might limit his flying-sleigh-pulling abilities. At any rate, because of this deformity, the other reindeer laugh, call him names, and bar him from their all-important games, effectively ostracizing him just because he looks funny.
Then, on December 24, the fog rolls in. Santa and the in-crowd are stranded. Without so much as an apology, Rudolph is asked to guide the sleigh. (Or perhaps he isn’t asked: The lyrics specify that Santa “came to say” that Rudolph could guide his sled—I’m guessing no one even inquired as to whether he had other holiday plans.) Despite the repeated snubs and the impolite request, Rudolph demonstrates his utility in brilliant form. At which point all the reindeer decide that they love him. Notice that they still don’t apologize.
Perhaps I am wrong, but this strikes me as a terrible, terrible lesson for kids.
At the very basic level, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” presents a fairly grim, Hobbesian vision of society: If you want to be accepted, you have to prove your economic utility—which, in the case of magical flying reindeer, appears to only involve the annual sleigh-pull.
Still, plenty of parents might actually think that Marxy understanding of the world is accurate, gloomy as it may be to force your kids to sing about it on the holidays. What no one should accept, though, is the unkindness of it all. Here is what the song makes clear: Donner, Prancer, Blitzen and the gang are assholes. They bully, they exclude, they come running for help after their inevitable screw-ups. You get the sense that, even at the end of the song, their newfound love for Rudolph doesn’t have much to do with affection. They’ve realized he’s going to go down in history, and now hope to say they were pals with him way back when. They want to name-drop, not make up for their dickishness.
Another revelation: The other reindeer are also crappy sleigh-pullers. Let’s face it: Fog on Christmas is not exactly unheard-of. What kind of second-rate magical flying animal can’t manage to guide his way through inclement weather? Apparently the reindeer games are played in a domed stadium, lest Donner and Blitzen’s precious coats have to adjust to imperfect conditions. Here’s hoping there are also some camel-humped reindeer languishing up there, too, just in case the holiday ever happens during a drought. Because God forbid the popular caribou bring bottled water with them.
The worst thing about the song is the way it spoils other holiday fables. Just try to reread Clement Clarke Moore’s “’Twas the Night Before Christmas” after thinking through the Rudolph story. The famous poem apparently takes place on a fog-free Christmas Eve. So there they all are on the roof with such a clatter: Vixen, Dancer, Prancer et al. Sweet! Until you think about how there’s some unhappy red-nosed outcast back home, shut out of even the reindeer games.
The song does a number on Santa’s reputation, too. If the Rudolph song showcases a dystopia where affection is based on economic worth, St. Nick’s continued status as CEO of the world’s biggest gift-delivery operation highlights a more modern Capitalist flaw: The self-perpetuation of irresponsible elites. Boys and girls all over the world depend on the guy for their toys, yet he apparently never even thought to invest in headlights for his sleigh. It’s an almost Rumsfeldian display of poor planning. It ought to get an executive fired. But apparently getting in trouble for incompetence is just for little people.
In fact, “Rudolph” makes it seem as if whole scene up there at the North Pole is actually pretty grisly. In Moore’s poem, Santa is described as a jolly, winking sweetheart whose belly shakes when he laughs. But Moore’s sleeping-capped narrator may have gotten it wrong. The Santa in the Rudolph song is a guy who looks the other way while his star performers bully and mock a single, defenseless outsider. He’s like a pot-bellied version of Sensei from The Karate Kid.
Which is sort of appropriate. If Rudolph had been turned into a teen flick—as opposed to an creepy stop-motion animated TV special—the oddball outcast would have told Santa to piss off, wrested control of the sleigh from Donner and the other fogbound jocks, and then led a rag-tag crew of misfits to save Christmas. Later, as his former tormentors shouted out with glee, our red-nosed hero would have walked right past them into the arms of a fellow unpopular reindeer, maybe a tough one who lives on the wrong side of the tracks but who just found out she got into art school and who now, come to think of it, looks kind of pretty.
Now there’s a holiday lesson to teach youngsters.
In the meantime, please don’t make them listen to “Rudolph.”