Why Parents and Teachers Should Watch Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is a story that provides hope for children who are being bullied and otherwise rejected by their society. Rudolph is clearly the hero of the story. The villains are most of the rest of the people in Rudolph’s society, including Santa Claus himself. Some critics have complained that the Rudolph story teaches bullied children that they cannot trust authority figures. But the bullied children already knew that. It’s high time that the adults figured it out as well.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was a character created in 1939 in a Christmas story created by Robert L. May, who was working as a copywriter for the Montgomery Ward Company. The story was such a hit that it was reprinted for several years. The story was adapted into a 9‑minute cartoon, to be shown in movie theaters. May’s brother-in-law, Johnny Marks, then wrote the lyrics and melody for the popular song. In 1964, the Rankin/Bass company produced a stop-action Christmas special, which has become a modern classic.

Robert May based his Rudolph story on the story of the Ugly Duckling. This duckling was a misfit among its flock of ducklings. Yet to everyone’s surprise, the Ugly Duckling grew up to be a beautiful swan. Likewise, Rudolph is initially rejected because he looks different from the other reindeer. As a result, his childhood is lonely and unhappy. Yet thanks to his natural gift, he becomes a valued member of society as an adult.

The television special introduced some new characters, including Hermey, an elf who ran away from Santa’s workshop because he wanted to become a dentist, instead of a toymaker. The two find their way to the Island of Misfit Toys, whose ruler asks Rudolph to ask Santa to find homes for the misfits. Yet Rudolph cannot live with the misfits because he’s afraid that his shining nose will endanger the others, by attracting the attention of the Abominable Snowman. Despite how horribly Rudolph has been treated by others, Rudolf grows up to be not only brave but selfless. He even has the magnanimity (greatness of soul) to forgive Santa and his father for their cruel rejection of him. Yet thanks to the brilliance that made others reject him, Rudoloph is eventually able to solve a problem that no one else in his society could solve.

Some people have argued that the Rudolph story is a parable about growing up gay. Certainly, gay children have often been targets of bullying, and gay children can draw comfort from the story, with its “It Gets Better” message (https://itgetsbetter.org). Yet Rudolph is not gay. He falls in love with a doe named Clarice. Instead, Rudolph represents another class of bullied children: the gifted. Gifted children are described as “bright” or “brilliant” because of their intelligence, whereas Rudolph is literally bright, because of his shiny nose. Like many gifted children, Rudolph was bullied by other youngsters as well as by adults, who were inexplicably frightened by his nose. (Likewise, many ordinary children and adults feel fear as well as loathing when they encounter brilliant people.) Rudolph’s father Donner had tried to get Rudolph to hide his nose, but the fake nose that Donner made for Rudolph eventually failed. Rudolph’s brilliance was as plain as the nose on his face. The attempt to hide it was stifling and was doomed to failure. The same goes for gifted children.

Like many other gifted children, Rudolph had a strong moral sense. He was kind and brave and selfless. His moral sense put Santa’s to shame, even though Santa is supposedly the one who knows who’s naughty or nice. Similarly, gifted children (and gifted adults) are often shunned, precisely because of their moral integrity, as well as their brilliance.

What about Hermey the elf? Some commentators have suggested that Hermey is gay because he is kind of nerdy. Yet when I was growing up, I knew some children who were not gay but were kind of nerdy, who did not worship Santa or take part in Christmas celebrations, and who went on to become dentists or other professionals. They described themselves as “Jewish.” Like Hermey, Jewish kids seemed to think that it was good to be bright. Although Hermey is not explicitly labeled as Jewish, his role in the Rudolph story is to teach children that anti-Semitism is stupid.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer teaches important moral lessons. Rudolph and Hermey serve as a role models for bright, nonconforming children. Rudolph and Hermey’s story arcs reassure bright children that their childhood misery is not their fault, and that their intelligence, compassion, and moral courage may allow them to become valuable and valued members of society in adult life. In contrast, Donner and Santa’s story arcs serve as cautionary tales for parents and teachers.

Many adults like to think that schoolyard bullying is “kid’s stuff” and therefore none of their concern. Yet the schoolyard bullies are taking their cues from the adults in their societies. Bullies often see themselves as a police force, enforcing the social norms that have been established by the adults. Likewise, Santa and Donner decided that Rudolph’s nose was an embarrassment, and they allowed “all of the other reindeer” to be cruel. The blinding snowstorm serves as a metaphor for Santa and Donner’s moral blindness. Without (moral) guidance from Rudolph, Santa and Donner could not deliver joy to children.

The moral lessons from Rudolph are simple: Be Rudolph. If you can’t be Rudolph, be Hermey. Don’t be bigoted and callous, like Donner and Santa and all of the other reindeer (except Rudolph’s girlfriend Clarice). If you find yourself having to rear or teach a child who is exceptionally bright, contact Serving the Emotional Needs of the Gifted (www.seng.org) for guidance.
Photo by joebeone