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Rudolph the Red

by James Lileks

It’s the time of year when people start pouring politics over holiday classics. The real hero of It’s a Wonderful Life was Mr. Potter! Scrooge was right!

Eh. If you really want a Christmas story that can be ruthlessly ruined with political meaning, look no farther than Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, a stop-motion children’s holiday special that has delighted generations with its gender-fluid elf who runs away with a bullied ruminant.

Every problem society had in the later Sixties can be traced back to the corroding influence of the show’s treatment of those who ought to be respected. You want to know why we got hippies who shunned ’Nam? Rudolph’s why.

Start with Santa. In Rudolph, Santa is a cruel, narcissistic, lazy boor. The evidence:

1. When his elves assemble to sing a song of fealty — “We Are Santa’s Elves,” which has the forced gaiety of a song expressing love for Kim Jong-un — Santa rolls his eyes and looks cross, leaving halfway through the performance with the comment that it “needs work.” Half the elves probably think they’re going to be sent to the labor camp. Oh, wait, the whole place is a labor camp.

2. When Santa goes to visit the newborn Rudolph, we see that the reindeer’s parents live in a cave. Rudolph’s father is a crucial employee in the toy-distribution system, so he has to be high up in the organization — but there’s not a stick of furniture in the place, and as far as we can tell Rudolph was rudely birthed on a cold stone floor.

Does Santa suddenly realize that his workers live in squalor and fall on his knees to apologize? Nope: He sings a song. About himself. How he is old Kris Kringle. He’s the king of ding-a-ling. Rudolph’s parents stare at him in mute horror; it’s like the CEO of the company showing up at your child’s christening, calling himself a completely different name, and announcing he is the monarch of bell sounds.

Then Rudolph’s schnozzle-merkin falls off and his nose glows red. Santa is horrified to see this defect and makes himself scarce; it’s a wonder he doesn’t tell Donner to smother the foal on the spot and make something that doesn’t sicken everyone with a revolting deformity.

3. Let’s talk a bit about Santa’s quality-control procedures. Now and then an elf screws up when making a toy — a train has square wheels, or a Jack-in-the-box has the wrong name. Obviously the elves are protesting work conditions with these passive acts of sabotage, but that’s another issue. What does Santa do with these toys?

A. Fix them, since he has a sophisticated toy-construction facility at his fingertips.

B. Ship the sentient Misfit Toys to a gulag run by a winged lion who keeps them from leaving.

The second, of course, and here we meet another compromised authority figure: this lion guy who has a castle. He’s called Moonracer because of course that’s a real lion name. More likely that Santa called up a pal and said, “Look, I need you to look after these defective toys so I don’t get sued by the end users. Normally I’d have them scrapped but they’re all conscious and self-aware, and I don’t want it to get out that I’m feeding Bob-in-the-box to the woodchipper, if you get my drift.”

Sure! Sure! Can I be king of the island?

“Yeah, whatever. Just make sure they don’t — ”

Can I be King Moonracer?

“Seriously, Ed? Look, this is just a temporary gig until I find out who’s screwing up on the line.”

I want to be King Moonracer!

“Fine. Be Duke Starzoomer for all I care, just — ”

I will make a royal crest and a throne and I will be King of the Sad Toys for you, Santa. I will not let you down.

“Ed, it’s strictly contract work — 1099, you get what I’m saying?”

At the end of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, all the misfit toys are dumped without any repairs on kids all over the world, which is something Moonracer might have done. But he was more concerned with lording over his icy island, posing on his throne like the prettiest king you ever saw.

As a kid, you don’t pick up on these things. When the big storm hits the North Pole and Santa says, “Well, looks like Christmas will be canceled this year,” you believe he’s sad. You never think: A guy who lives in the Arctic has no contingency plans for bad weather? The problem would seem to be adverse atmospheric factors such as wind and low visibility; a red nose on the end of a reindeer would be like a flashlight taped to the stern of an airplane. It’s not that bright. It’s not as if Rudolph’s nose goes on and people stagger back screaming, “My eyes, my eyes, I can’t see!”

No, Santa realizes he has run out of excuses and has to go through with Christmas after all. Rudolph destroyed kids’ faith in Santa and placed it in counterculture figures such as Yukon Cornelius, a drifter who has “outsider” status because he is literally outside all the time.

And let’s not forget the narrator — Sam the Snowman, voiced by Burl Ives, a folk singer who was probably a Commie. Do you remember the song he sang? “Silver and gold, silver and gold / Kulaks are hoarding them, so I’ve been told.”

It’s all there. No wonder Woodstock happened.

– Mr. Lileks blogs at www.lileks.com.

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