Sunday, December 23, 2007

The strangeness of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

Only this year did I stop to ponder the opening lines of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer:

You know Dasher and Dancer
And Prancer and Vixen,
Comet and Cupid
And Donner and Blitzen.
But do you recall
The most famous reindeer of all?

Hold on: these kids "know" the likes of Comet but might have forgotten Rudolph? And you can't say they're just working up to knowing the big one because they would have to "recall" the acknowledged "most famous reindeer." Nonsense and bollocks and humbug.

But we let that pass. Here's the part I've been thinking about more:

Then one foggy Christmas Eve
Santa came to say
Rudolph with your nose so bright
Won't you guide my sleigh tonight?
Then all the reindeer loved him ...

My first thought was that this is a prototypical nerd's fantasy, the dream of a world in which gaining the favor of a parent or teacher results, instantly and without explanation, in attaining the love of one's peers.

Maybe there's something to that reading, but I've come to a more universal one that I like better: that the song is less about the child's perspective than the adult's--the parent's. This is the fantasy of beholding a child subjected to laughter and name-calling and transforming the social world into one of approval and love. What power could a parent or teacher desire more, and what power is less attainable?

At this moment, the Santa myth meets the Christmas story in a beautifully complicated way: Santa's approval of Rudolph involves the God-like prevention of social wounds; the Christmas story has God subject God's child to the world's woundedness. And at some level, they both raise the problem of preventable even: until a moment of dramatic redemption, Santa and God both allow suffering they ostensibly have the power to stop.

The Rudolph story may gain its greatest complexity and interest, and its strongest connection to the more complicated mythologies of Christmas, when we imagine Rudolph going to bed Christmas night, exhausted and happy and loved, and wondering what will happen if the next Christmas Eve brings a clear sky.

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