Mind & Spirit

Janine’s Journal: Rudolph on My Mind

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Watching “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” is a holiday staple for Janine Pumilia, our managing editor. Delve into her reflections on the anti-bullying theme.

“Today, children all over the world read and hear about the little deer who started out in life as a loser, just as I did. But they learn that, when he gave himself for others, his handicap became the very means through which he received happiness.” – Robert L. May

“Today, children all over the world read and hear about the little deer who started out in life as a loser, just as I did. But they learn that, when he gave himself for others, his handicap became the very means through which he received happiness.”
– Robert L. May

Watching the stop-action animation film “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” was a big deal, in our family, in mid-1960s Loves Park.

We had just three TV networks then and the VHS player wouldn’t come along for another decade. NBC granted us only one chance per year to see our favorite reindeer. It was an event.

I knew it was an event because Mom sent Dad to fetch Geri’s hamburgers before Rudolph aired. The Hal Huffman family didn’t “waste” money on restaurant food except on very special occasions. I knew Rudolph must be very special.

The Plot

Let’s review the major plot points of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” as they appeared in the original 89-couplet poem released in 1939 by Robert Lewis May.

Rudolph is born with a physical abnormality.

He’s cruelly bullied by his peers.

Despite this, he’s a well-behaved, thoughtful son; his parents love him unconditionally.

When presented with an opportunity from Santa, Rudolph meets the challenge.

His fickle peers now love him.

Good little boys and girls around the world receive their presents from Santa because Rudolph is able to summon his inner courage and be his best reindeer self.

The 1964 stop-action animation film expands the plot. Sadly, Rudolph is shamed by his father and forced to cover up his red nose with mud. Rudolph’s misery causes him to run away with some other misfits, including Hermey the Elf, who wants to be a dentist instead of a toymaker. Since Hollywood is involved in this version, Rudolph gets the girl in the end – a pretty and kind little doe named Clarice. As in the original poem, Santa asks Rudolph to save the day and light the way, by leading his reindeer team through the foggy night. The respectful little reindeer answers, “I would be honored, sir.”

Some 77 years after Rudolph sprang to life, he’s still teaching millions of tots to have empathy for others and courage to save the day. A recent storybook version we picked up for our granddaughter concludes:

“Rudolph and his friends and family returned to Christmastown. When the others heard their story, they realized that those who are different are important, too. Everyone had a special purpose – even the toothless, gentler Abominable Snow Monster, who just happened to be the perfect size to place a star on top of the Christmas tree!”

What child doesn’t love the idea of having a place and purpose in the world, despite his or her flaws and quirks? Sure,  this is just one of many underdog-makes-good tales, but there’s something extra-poignant about Rudolph. Maybe that something extra is the pathos of Rudolph’s creator.

Robert Lewis May

It was 1938 when a boss at the Chicago-based Montgomery Ward Company asked Robert May, age 35, to write a cheery children’s tale for a give-away coloring book that would be handed out by its stores the following Christmas. The request came during the lowest point in May’s life. Like so many others, his New York parents, who were Jewish, had lost their family fortune in the 1929 stock market crash. As a 1926 Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Dartmouth College, May dreamed of writing an important novel. Instead, he moved to Chicago to take a low-paying copywriter job in order to pay off mounting medical debt; his beloved wife Evelyn was dying of cancer. Their daughter Barbara, then 4, didn’t understand why her mother wasn’t healthy and strong like all of the other mothers. This broke May’s heart.

While none of the accounts I’ve read mention it, I can’t help noting something else about the timing. In late 1930s Europe, a mega-bully named Adolph Hitler was persecuting Jews and invading countries; a fog of confusion and the prospect of world war hung on the horizon. May once recalled watching the fog rise off Lake Michigan as he wrote his children’s poem for Montgomery Ward.

Evelyn died in July 1939. May was now the grieving single parent of a grieving child. His bosses offered to take the Rudolph project off his plate.

“But I needed Rudolph now more than ever,” May recalled in a 1975 newspaper article. “Gratefully I buried myself in the writing. Finally, in late August, it was done. I called Barbara and her grandparents into the living room and read it to them. In their eyes I could see that the story accomplished what I had hoped.”

May shared a lot in common with Rudolph. As a child, he, too, had been picked on. May was different, small, “somewhat of an outcast.”

Rescued by Rudolph

As it turns out, the little reindeer came to May’s rescue in more ways than one. Along with being an outlet for his grief, Rudolph fulfilled May’s yearning to communicate something meaningful. He also paved the road to May’s financial recovery.

In 1946, Montgomery Ward President Sewell Avery gave May the legal rights to all things Rudolph. The poem had been very popular with customers and 2.4 million copies had been distributed, before World War II  caused a paper shortage.

May remarried a Catholic woman, converted to Catholicism and had five more children. Meanwhile, in 1947, his sister Margaret married a talented songwriter named Johnny Marks, who set Rudolph’s story to music. Famous singing cowboy Gene Autry recorded it and “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” was the first song of the 1950s to top charts at No. 1.

May developed Rudolph in other ways, too. The Rankin/Bass stop-action animation film that my family so adored was released in 1964, with popular singer/songwriter Burl Ives singing and narrating. Rudolph had permeated pop culture and become a fixture of Christmas tradition.

What If?

I suppose it’s the recent rash of bullying behavior on the national stage that has me thinking about Rudolph. After all, he’s the poster child for bully victims and it seems this behavior is more acceptable than ever.

Despite his tormentors, Rudolph managed to remain a good and loving reindeer, with the courage to do something heroic. But many bully victims don’t fare as well in real life. Sometimes their pain and resentment ferments and explodes.

This got me thinking.

What if Rudolph’s anger at being alienated had triggered a mental weakness in his little deer brain? What if he one day went on a killing spree and took out his peers during flying practice?

What if Rudolph’s alienation had driven him to sign up with a hate group like the Intolerant Scumbags In Snowbanks – known around the North Pole as ISIS?

What if Rudolph had turned to drugs to escape his pain? Or landed in prison, leaving Santa to handle the foggy night on his own?

What if other reindeer on the flight team, being deeply prejudiced against red noses, had refused to accept Santa’s order to follow Rudolph’s lead? Reindeer civil disobedience can get ugly.

What if Rudolph had been unable to accept the wonderful opportunity from Santa because he lacked the inner courage that comes from being truly loved as a child? All good little boys and girls would have paid the price.

What if Rudolph had held a grudge and simply refused to help Santa? Could we blame him? Yes and no. His persecution was real. But by withholding forgiveness, Rudolph would only position himself as a forever-victim and become a more miserable reindeer.

Push Back

Intolerance causes pain. Pain causes more pain and makes the world more dangerous.

There is being strong and there is being a bully. They are not the same.

Launching unprovoked attacks on others, simply because we’re big enough, rich enough, powerful enough or popular enough to get away with this bad behavior, is just plain wrong, whether we’re Vladimir Putin invading Ukraine or a middle school cyber-bully torturing a peer. Most of us instinctively know this. If we don’t push back against this kind of incivility, bully behavior will be our new societal norm.

May wrote: “Today, children all over the world read and hear about the little deer who started out in life as a loser, just as I did. But they learn that, when he gave himself for others, his handicap became the very means through which he received happiness. My reward is knowing that, every year, when Christmas rolls around, Rudolph still brings that message to millions, both young and old.”

Our incoming First Lady has vowed to  push back against bullying and make it her signature issue. I sincerely wish her success in this endeavor.

Especially if we profess to follow the Christmas Child – Who held a very tender place in His heart for “losers” and taught us to do likewise – we need to summon both the empathy and the courage of Rudolph. We can do this.

After all, light has a way of cutting through the fog.

Merry Christmas!

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