You know what bothers me about the Rudolph story? His parents. They were ashamed of him, their own child, because he had a shiny red nose — because he was different. They made him hide it with a false nose, which gave a nasal sound to Rudolph’s voice. I can understand the other young reindeer picking on Rudolph — children can be cruel, and it’s wrong that they persecute those who are different, but it happens all the time, and the Rudolph story only reflects reality in that regard. But his parents?
I was ready to condemn the whole story for the inexcusable behavior of Rudolph’s parents, but upon reflection I realized the song, recorded in 1949 by Gene Autry and whose melody is practically identical to a couple of other 20th-century secular Christmas classics, “Frosty the Snowman” and “Up On The Housetop,” said nothing about the parents, only Rudolph’s playmates. “All of the other reindeer used to laugh and call him names. They never let poor Rudolph join in any reindeer games.” The bit about the parents was added to the TV show, which was released in 1964.
But there’s more to it. Rudolph started life as a book. He was created in 1939 by Robert L. May, an advertising copywriter for Montgomery Ward department stores. The story is told in rhyme, in couplets of dactyls (the poetry term for a strong syllable followed by two weak syllables) imitating the meter of “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” which is more commonly known as “’Twas the Night Before Christmas”: “’Twas the day before Christmas, and all through the hills / The reindeer were playing … enjoying the spills.” (Those three dots, called an ellipsis, are May’s, not mine. Who knew you could learn so much reading about Rudolph.)
In the book, Rudolph is ostracized and heckled for his nose — “’Ha ha! Look at Rudolph! His nose is a sight!’ ‘It’s red as a beet!’ ‘Twice as big!’ ‘Twice as bright!’” — and Rudolph is shown standing by a tree, tears falling from his eyes and pooling in the snow while his nose glows oh so bright. But little mention is made of his parents, only indirectly, and Rudolph seems to have a happy home life: “Although he was lonesome, he always was good …” (More of those dots …) “Obeying his parents, as good reindeer should!” … (Those are my ellipses, because I skipped two stanzas …) “He’d get just as much … and this is what pleased him … / As the happier, handsomer reindeer who teased him.” And Rudolph is shown smiling as he and his shiny nose get in bed.
Another big difference: Rudolph doesn’t live at the North Pole, and his dad isn’t one of Santa’s reindeer. Rudolph’s family is part of a herd that lives in some unnamed boreal reindeer village, one of Santa’s many stops. Santa discovers Rudolph’s shining nose when he arrives at Rudolph’s house to deliver presents. Seeing that red glow, after stumbling about in the dark, nearly delivering the wrong presents at many other stops, Santa wakes Rudolph and asks him to guide his sleigh: “’I need you,’ said Santa, ‘to help me tonight … To lead all my deer on the rest of our flight.’ … A note for his folks he dashed-off in a hurry. ‘I’ve gone to help Santa,’ he wrote. ‘Do not worry.’” I like this part; the illustration shows a hoof holding a dripping dip pen and a bottle of ink. If you’ve paid close attention to my writing, you know I love fountain pens and bottled ink.
After a successful night leading Santa’s team, Rudolph returns to his herd after daybreak, making a good showing for his handsomer playmates. “These bad deer who used to do nothing but tease him / Would now have done anything … only to please him! / They felt even sorrier that they had been bad / When Santa said: — ‘Rudolph, I never have had / A deer quite so brave or so brilliant as you / At fighting black fog, and at guiding me through. / By you last night’s journey was actually bossed / Without you, I’m certain, we’d all have been lost.’”
So … about his parents in the television special? I think it was a strategy devised to make Rudolph more of an outcast, by giving him a nasal voice that added another alleged physical deformity to his problems, and the accidental, startling unveiling of his ruddy snout made better television drama. Otherwise, it’s a fun show, deserving its status as a holiday classic, and it found its start in a charming poem about an underdeer who made good.
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