This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer special. For those remembering how they stared with wonder and awe at the jerky stop-motion animation and shivered with delicious fear at the perils faced by the plucky buck with the incandescent schnoz, the notion that this program occurred a half century ago would be a marvelous testament to the enduring power of the show’s appeal . . . if it didn’t make you feel so damned old.
If it does, that is. For young kids today it’s a cultural artifact from a time so remote it might as well be the Renaissance. The snowman’s resemblance to Burl Ives doesn’t make them think of a hefty folkie howling with alcoholic rage in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof; the concept of a “misfit” doesn’t echo a decade of neurotic intellectual culture celebrating the outsider who couldn’t find his place in the grey-flannel machinery.
It’s charming and tuneful and justly revered. So let’s spoil it by overthinking the details and applying the corrosive idiocy of modern standards, shall we? Herewith a few points to consider.
‐If it’s been a long time since you saw it, you’re struck immediately by one jarring fact:
Santa is a jerk. When Rudolph is born in the spring, Santa wanders over to the cave where his parents live — never mind the fact that Santa’s employees live in unheated holes — and he uses the opportunity to sing a song about himself being the King of Jing-A-Ling. You get the idea that it’s all about Santa up in Christmastown, 24/7/52/365 — a fact underscored by the next scene, when the off-season elves have convened to pledge fealty in song form. “We Are Santa’s Elves” rivals North Korean fealty-pageants in its naked self-abasement. We have no individual identity, only collective identification as property of the employer.
Later he sees Rudolph perform a remarkable act of aerial maneuvering unknown for a young reindeer, but upon discovering the nasal deformity he tells his father he should be ashamed, presumably for carrying a genetic defect an ultrasound would have revealed.
‐The truth about Yukon Cornelius. We knew he was a prospector, and we assumed he was looking for gold. No. Peppermint. This fact was trimmed from the final version, but they left in a scene where Yukon licks the tip of his pickaxe, if you will, and expresses disappointment. This confounded any kid who did not know that the presence of gold could be ascertained by one’s taste buds, but, well, prospectors knew things. When you know he was looking for peppermint, it makes sense.
Still, your rational brain shoulders aside delight and wants to know what sort of idiocy this is. Peppermint, as an extract, is added to sugar to make confection. There are no vast underground deposits of red-and-white-striped Cane ready for industrial extraction, and even if there were, experience with the stuff leads you to believe that it would shatter upon contact with the most rudimentary form of mining equipment. If it was a commodity, surely it would be subject to wild cyclical price fluctuations depending on the season.
Let us, however, posit that it was a valuable substance with a significant market. Cornelius (if that was his real name; the use of a nickname “Yukon” indicated he was comfortable with malleable identity, and may have been using a false name to avoid retribution from those who had backed earlier unsuccessful operations) was prospecting near the North Pole, given his proximity to Santa’s manufacturing facilities. We don’t know the extent of Santa’s holdings, and it’s possible that the discovery of a major vein of peppermint would only result in years of litigation and discovery motions, the end result of which would be an invalidation of Santa’s property rights by a U.N. body that declared the area international territory.
That would last about two years until mysterious “fascist” attacks on Russian-speaking elves prompted Putin to annex most of Christmastown and confiscate its industrial base.
‐Kids today are appalled by the brusque coach who regards Rudolph as a freak and clearly sides with the normal reindeer youth. Nowadays the character would recognize Rudolph’s specialness right away, and the entire show would have been about his fight to get Rudolph on the team, culminating in an impassioned speech before a congressional committee and the passage of Rudolph’s Law.
By the way, when I was a kid we understood the coach character’s nasty reaction — not because we sympathized with him, but because phys-ed teachers were jerks.
‐The Abominable Snowman. Let us be frank: The moment when Rudolph sets out on a floe to draw the Snowman away from his friends is one of the more noble moments of childhood television, married with dismay: You know he had no chance. To a small child who has finally grasped the narrative, it was really scary, because Rudolph was going to die.
Parents watching along may have wanted to say “See what happens when you run off with your weird friends? This is what happens. You break your mother’s heart and your intestines are slurped up by a murderous albino.”
Of course, Rudolph didn’t die. Oh — sorry. SPOILER. Rudolph found his mom and future breeding partner cornered by the Abominable Snowman, whose mindless hunger somehow manifested itself in roaring and gesturing but not in rending and eating. With Yukon’s help, the monster was banished — and here is where some moderns complain about the way the drama reinforces archaic gender notions. One of the articles about the show’s enduring appeal rolled its eyes at the line about “protecting the womenfolk.” A modern version would have Clarice using a flurry of kung-fu to stun the monster, after which Rudolph would do something geeky — say, wiring his nose to transmit an electric shock — and then his mom would deliver the coup de grace while saying some mom thing that was a cliché in ordinary circumstances but totally kick-ass here. “Careful when you step outside, Bumble. You’ll catch your DEATH of cold.”
And then they would see to Yukon, who had been wounded at the start of the fight.
When you think about it, though, letting Yukon and Rudolph take on the monster might make sense. Even if it was patriarchal. Cornelius had a sharp weapon. Rudolph had pointy, stabby horns attached to his head. I’d give those guys the first shot.
We all thought Yukon died when he went over the cliff, but as we all know now, Bumbles bounce! Really? A fall from that height would have led to severe internal organ damage as well as spinal injury; at the very least, to a massive concussion. If Bumbles did indeed bounce, Yukon would have been thrown a great distance and dashed against rocks or an icy protrusion. Apparently he survived, though, and instead of using the opportunity to escape, or use his pickaxe to kill the creature while it was stunned, he considered the possibility that the beast was motivated by dental discomfort, which is like the SEALs who burst into bin Laden’s lair inquiring whether his worldview was darkened by persistent hemorrhoids.
No matter! All’s well that ends well, and Rudolph was promoted to the head of the team. The first time you saw it, you thought that was the end — but then there was more! After the commercials! You saw Santa and the reindeers dropping off the toys from the Island of Discarded Production Runs, happy they were getting a home. Because that’s what mattered. Because it was Christmas.
It would be years later before you thought of a dad watching the kid play with a train with square wheels, wondering where that came from, and turning to his wife. “Honey,” he whispers. “Did you save the receipt?”
— James Lileks is a columnist for National Review Online.