The Existential Despair of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
The Atlantic|December 2020
Revisiting the most disturbing Christmas special
By Caitlin Flanagan

At the dawn of the 1960s, a couple of New York admen named Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass created the Christmas special. Before that, the networks hadn’t been sure exactly how they should entertain children during the holiday season. They had largely come down on the side of edification, as seen in NBC’s 1951 commission of a children’s opera, Amahl and the Night Visitors, broadcast live on Christmas Eve, after which the show lived on in reruns, and—also on NBC—Babes in Toyland, a turn-of-the-last-century operetta based on the Mother Goose tales.

But American children of the 1960s weren’t going to put up with operas and nursery rhymes. We had grown strong on orange juice, casseroles, and chewable vitamins. We weren’t afraid of polio or tuberculosis— we had the Salk vaccine and the tine test. We had had one small step for mankind, 31 flavors, and 101 dalmatians. The previous decade had already established the whims of children as a legitimate market force; in two years, Wham-O had made $45 million on the Hula-Hoop. Rich guys in office buildings were taking us seriously. What did we want next?

Apparently what we wanted next was 55 minutes of Christmas-crushing despair: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. For more than half a century, generations of children have taken the show, which debuted in 1964, into their hearts, and for just about as long, I’ve been trying to avoid it. From my earliest days, the special produced in me only a fretful anxiety, leading to an eventual refusal to watch it. I couldn’t really explain the problem. I knew only that the show didn’t make me feel very Christmassy.

There’s a lot in Rudolph that people don’t seem to remember. At one point, the Abominable Snowmonster tries to murder Rudolph in front of his parents by smashing a giant stalactite on his head. As our gentle hero lies facedown, concussed and unresponsive, his own girlfriend—the beautiful, long-lashed Clarice— wonders aloud why the snowman won’t put the little reindeer out of his misery: “Why doesn’t he get it over with?” This was Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, not The Third Man. Meanwhile, back at Santa’s workshop— a phrase that should connote only the jolliest of associations— a dark tale is unfolding. Santa, it turns out, presides over a nonunion shop where underproducing elves are deprived of breaks and humiliated; they dream not of Christmas, but of escape. Poorly constructed toys are thrown onto a bare and frozen island, where they cry and wander. How long have they been there? A year? A thousand years? One of the toys, A Dolly for Sue, looks perfectly fine—why has she been stuck with the misfits? Rankin finally admitted the nature of Dolly’s flaw in 2005, when he revealed that she suffered from “psychiatric problems.” The Island of Misfit Toys, it turns out, is but another atoll in the gulag archipelago.

Santa presides over a nonunion shop where underproducing elves are deprived of breaks and humiliated.

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