The month of December is chock full of Christmas TV specials. Jewish atheist that I am, I plan on catching just about all of them.
While the sheer volume of holiday programming ensures a great diversity of subject matter, it seems fair to say that if we could only save two of them to carry into the next century and beyond, they would have to be A Charlie Brown Christmas and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. And as singular as those Christmas classics are, they have one big thing in common: They are two of the most depressing programs ever inflicted upon American families.
Yes, they have happy endings. (Sort of.) But the trials their protagonists undergo are not merely challenging: they are borderline sadistic. It gets you wondering: why should Christmas, of all things, be so bloody painful?
Admittedly, in Charlie Brown’s case, the abuse is more or less politics as usual. A Charlie Brown Christmas begins with the ceremonial missed field goal (courtesy of Lucy) and proceeds with Charlie Brown assuming the role of Christmas play director for no apparent reason except for all the other kids to ridicule every decision he makes—including, most memorably, his choice of an actual sapling (rather than an aluminum pole) to use as the gang’s official Christmas tree. “Boy, are you stupid, Charlie Brown,” says Violet, telling the group, “He isn’t the kind you can depend on to do anything right.”
We laugh because it’s a cartoon, but we also realize that when this happens in real life it’s called bullying, which has a way of burning emotional scars that can take years to heal. (If you manage to live long enough, that is.)
Then again, at least the torture that Charlie Brown experiences is strictly at the hands of his fellow adolescents. While children can be very cruel indeed, there is a particular and arguably worse trauma that comes from being bullied by grownups.
Enter Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.
It’s easy to overlook—what with the lighthearted theme song and the charming stop-motion animation—but the early scenes of the 1964 classic include behavior toward the titular character—by adults, mind you—that is jaw-droppingly callous. When we say “all of the other reindeer used to laugh and call him names,” that includes his own father, Dasher, who forces Rudolph to conceal his peculiar proboscis and, when Rudolph objects, barks that “there are more important things than comfort: self-respect!” The flying coach, Comet, is the one who incites all the name-calling after the fake nose falls off, and it’s Santa Claus—Santa Claus!—who sees Rudolph’s shiny red bulb and tells Dasher, “You should be ashamed of yourself!”
Piled on top of this is a parallel story involving an elf, Hermey, who would rather be a dentist than one of Santa’s slaves, but is told that an elf’s lot in life is to make toys and follow orders. When Hermey pleads that he just wants to “fit in,” the boss coldly retorts, “You’ll never fit in!”
Jesus, Mary and Joseph, what in the heck is wrong with these people?
Admittedly, this program first aired 51 years ago, back when child abuse was an accepted form of parenting and schoolyard hazing was a fun way to make friends.
Ultimately, Rudolph is a story about empowerment, individualism and acceptance—hence the happy ending, in which Rudolph and company defeat the Abominable Snow Monster and save Christmas from that meddlesome fog—but until we reach that point, it’s essentially a story about being heartlessly exiled from society because of the ignorance of others. The program’s finest quality is that it pulls no punches, and we cherish it, in part, because we suspect that it could never get made today.
The whole plot screams “allegory!” Personally, I’ve long seen Rudolph as a metaphor for homosexuality and coming out, and I was delighted to conduct some quick research and find that the rest of the Internet has the exact same theory. (One blogger noted that “Island of Misfit Toys” would be a fantastic name for a gay bar.)
Indeed, for any closeted young person, it’s nearly impossible to see Rudolph and Hermey rejected for who they are and not be overcome by waves of fear, shame and guilt over the emotional tsunami that’s going on in your head. While my own childhood was not nearly as traumatic, that doesn’t make watching Rudolph any less poignant.
I’m sure the show’s creators had none of this in mind in 1964. The genius of the script is that it can be adopted by anyone who feels like a misfit toy and wishes the rest of world would cut them a little slack.
If Rudolph has a weakness, it’s how, when the folks at the North Pole finally do accept Rudolph, it’s for the dumbest possible reason: utility.
Apart from having saved the town from the monster, Rudolph is made a hero because Santa realizes his glowing appendage has an immediate practical function—namely, guiding Santa’s sleigh through the storm—and not because having an odd facial feature is an incredibly stupid reason for banishing someone from his own hometown. Santa and company welcome Rudolph because they realize they need him—not necessarily because they want him.
That’s a rather ambivalent lesson, to say the least, suggesting one’s personal quirks are fair game for ridicule and condemnation unless other people happen to find a specific use for them. I am reminded of the title an old essay by gay rights pioneer Andrew Sullivan, “What Are Homosexuals For?”
In a way, the conclusion to A Charlie Brown Christmas is the more honest of the two. After Linus’s famous soliloquy quoting from the Gospel of Luke, the whole Peanuts troupe wanders into the snow, steals all the fancy decorations from Snoopy’s doghouse and reassembles them onto Charlie Brown’s feeble sapling. They have actually learned something: Beauty is not always apparent at first glance, but you can always find it if you look closely enough. “Charlie Brown is a blockhead,” Lucy concedes, “But he did get a nice tree.”
As we well know, that’s about as close as any Peanuts kid gets to genuine human affection, so this counts as an unqualified triumph for good old Charlie Brown: He stubbornly resists the commercialization of Christmas, and in time, everyone else realizes that he is right.
It’s a warm payoff to a very cold setup, and like Rudolph, it shows how Christmas has a way of bringing out people’s better angels.
But the real test—as both of these great shows understand—is whether this yuletide kindness can survive all the way to December 26.