For a popular culture that generally values what's new and now above all else, the holiday season stands alone in its nostalgia basking ways. We hear it on the radio, where holiday songs of the 50s are suddenly everywhere, and we see it on TV, where the fast-paced, slickly produced shows of the day give way to the clunky and at times morally questionable holiday specials of decades past.
While Charlie Brown and The Grinch certainly fall into this category, it's the stop motion Rankin/Bass specials of the 60s and 70s that feel most out of place in today's media landscape. That several of them continue to air in primetime lo these many years later is nothing short of a Christmas miracle.
The best known and most-beloved of the Rankin/Bass specials, of course, is Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. First aired on NBC on December 6, 1964 as part of the General Electric Fantasy Hour, Rudolph is now the longest-running annually-aired Christmas special.
Growing up in the 80s and attending catholic grade school, I can stil remember being told to watch Rudolph on TV, and then the next morning, one of the parish priests talked to us about the Christian values we could learn from it. (This makes my grade-school years sound dreary, but I also remember a teacher in second grade who let several of my classmates get up to recount the previous night's episode of ALF, and in third grade, our teacher led a discussion about Madonna's controversial "Like a Prayer" video.)
Although I can no longer remember exactly what lesson our priest taught us about Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer that year, I still watch the special when it airs on TV and marvel at the big and small messages it seems to have for kids, especially when viewed through a more modern lens.
Herewith, then, are some of the key takeaways from Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer:
This would never fly in a special produced today, but the Rankin/Bass Santa is so bigoted against baby Rudolph's red nose that he tells Donner to cover up his kid's deformity or risk losing his spot on the reindeer team. He continues this bigoted stance throughout the show, and does nothing to deter the mean-spirited reindeer games that exclude Rudolph. He's also bitchy to Mrs. Claus, who's only trying to fatten him up for the holiday so he'll fill out his Santa suit. He's really a grouchy jerk throughout. I suppose if there is a positive message to be gleaned from all of this, it's that no one is perfect. Sometimes the ones we look up to don't act right. Sometimes they're mean. Sometimes they're wrong. Rudolph is a hero because he defies everyone, even Santa.
This is the most obvious lesson of Rudolph, but it's also the one least worth discussing since it's a message that prevails across all fiction. Being different will get you mocked on the playground, but it's what makes you great. Clearly this goes for Rudolph, whose beak blinks like a blinkin' beacon, and for Hermie, who was born an elf but longs to tinker on teeth rather than toys, and for Yukon Cornelius, who sets out on his own to find silver and gold and instead finds a friend for life (and an unlikely life-saver) in the Bumble. And it especially goes for all the residents of the Island of Misfit Toys, perhaps the single most overt guilt trip laid upon children ever. Which leads us to our third lesson.
An underrated Rudolph lesson is that children should be grateful for any and all Christmas presents they get, be they from Santa or from Mum and Dad or from Great Aunt Hildy. And they should certainly never outwardly complain about a present they don't like, not because it's rude and ungrateful (which it is, of course), but because it will make the presents feel sad and unloved. How wild is that. Is it messing with kids' heads? Yes, but they deserve it for being so rude and ungrateful!
It's pretty bad out there! When Frosty melts in the greenhouse, all the little girl Karen gets to do is cry. Cindy Lou Who asks the Grinch "Why are you stealing our Christmas tree" and is placated with an apple. Mrs. Bob Cratchitt is such a non-entity in A Christmas Carol that she doesn't get a first name! It's awful. Rudolph attempts to do better by giving Rudolph a girlfriend, Clarice, and handing her a sweet ballad to sing. The only problem is that "There's Always Tomorrow" is a real snoozer, and if you say you have never taken that opportunity for a bathroom break, I say now that you are LYING. Points for effort, I suppose.
Sure, there's no real reason to take a break for Sam the narrating Snowman to sing "Holly Jolly Christmas," but if you've hired Burl Ives, you may as well just let the man sing. And sing he does:
Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer airs on TV at the following dates and times this year:
Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.