Jim Gray watches his all-time favorite Christmas Special with his daughter, and is taken aback by her insightfulness. When did things change?
“Oh my God, Rudolph’s Dad is a jerk,” my daughter says. She hops up from her reclined position on the love seat and tucks a leg beneath her, turning to face me. Despite a recent growth spurt and stick figure-limbs, the pajamas she’s wearing still dangle over the ends of her feet. Above her hang icicle lights, meant for the outdoors but staple-gunned to the ceiling. Across the room, hundreds of blue and purple bulbs glow within the branches of our too-large Douglas fir. In front of us, mounted above the fireplace and shining like a holiday billboard, is the 72-inch plasma TV. Together they cast a light that bathes her outrage in warmth.
“Come again, Sweetie?” I say.
“He just yelled at Rudolph to hide the one thing that makes him different. That’s awful.”
My 12-year-old daughter and I are watching Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, my personally mandated, annual viewing of the 1964 stop-animation classic. My 8-year-old son is folded up against me on the couch, already asleep. He didn’t make it past Burl Ives singing the opening song.
Something about my daughter’s remark sounds rehearsed. Maybe she talked about the Rudolph story at school. Maybe they dissected its cruelties in social studies class. It’s possible. It’s also possible that my already empathetic little girl is growing more aware. Regardless, she’s visibly pleased with herself, wearing her indignation like a new sweater and admiring how she looks with it on.
“You’re right,” I tell her. “But it’s only because he doesn’t want Rudolph to be made fun of.” I look back to the TV but her eyes stay on me, longer than I’m comfortable with. Tell me I didn’t just say that. I’m embarrassed. Embarrassed for having defended the obvious cruelty she pointed out—for feeling the need to defend it—and with such a lame response.
I know this isn’t what she expected. She’s used to my running commentary on life, my cynical elaboration on the news she’s not listening to, the life injustices I’m always pointing out and my attempts to make her question all that she sees and hears. “Yes they’ll send you a second one free if you order now,” I’ll say, “but did you notice you have to pay additional shipping and handling? $9.95 is not free.” I’m a buzz kill.
So why did I just throw a wet blanket over my daughter’s observation? Why am I not validating her for practicing what I preach? Why? Because it’s Rudolph, and I’m once again making my kids relive my youth and forcing a holiday moment.
Whatever prompted her comment, she’s now tuned in to the indefensible cruelty of the story and I’m forced to consider it. It’s not that I hadn’t noticed before—the meanness is pretty blatant after all. Rudolph is teased and called names by his peers. Kids can be cruel. But the rejection and scorn Rudolph receives from the grownups in the story is really pretty crushing. His own father is embarrassed of him. Comet, the flying coach, demands that Rudolph be excluded. And now, in the current scene, Santa is joining in.
“I’m sure he’ll grow out of it,” Rudolph’s dad tells Santa, referring to the glowing nose.
“Well let’s hope so if he plans to pull my sleigh one day.” Yes, Santa is being an asshole.
To my surprise, my daughter lets this scene slide but I think about commenting. I want to acknowledge her earlier critique but I say nothing. Making such an obvious about-face now somehow feels more embarrassing than my original dismissal. The story has just begun though, and there’s plenty more brutality ahead. There’s time. Time for me to reconcile the pride that’s surfacing—my daughter is 12 and awakening to the world—with the sadness from one more item scratched off her innocence list.
As blameworthy as the story is, I feel defensive about my lifetime of fondness for Rudolph and for wanting my kids to share in that. It’s what I grew up with. As a kid, the Christmas season in my house held few holiday traditions and rituals—even going to church service was irregular. Each year our Aunt Margie sent my brother and me a handmade felt ornament, Mom anchored our stockings with a Lifesaver Book that we immediately and predictably swapped flavors from, and Johnny Mathis provided the season’s soundtrack. That’s about it. The only other constant was the Christmas specials.
“I call the TV Guide,” I would yell. I’d scan the week’s listings while hunched over the coffee table, marker in hand, and highlight them all; Rudolph, Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town, The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, Frosty the Snowman, and any number of also-rans. We’d transfer the dates and times to the calendar on the fridge and wait. No video tape, no DVDs, no video-on-demand. We had one opportunity to catch them and they subsequently became cherished events.
I’ve continued to watch Christmas specials, Rudolph in particular, though the circumstances have changed over the years. In high school I remember feeling apologetic. “There wasn’t anything else on,” I recall saying once to friends. Come college, I openly embraced Rudolph with that boastful, hipster nostalgia, the kind that has you bonding over favorite breakfast cereals from your youth and claiming to have actually watched Soul Train after the cartoons ended on Saturday mornings. During my twenties I watched it alone, with girlfriends, guy friends, and a couple times, coercively, with housemates. “Rudolph’s really cool,” I’d say. “Here, have another bong hit.” When I met my now ex-wife, I confidently expressed my fondness for Rudolph and, more times than not, she’d humor me by joining me on the couch.
The show’s familiarity always comforted me. Still, I felt like I was chasing something I couldn’t quite catch, trying to rekindle the Christmas magic from my youth but falling short. Then came the kids.
When my children were born, I saw them as connections to this magic. Little conduits. I’d make Rudolph a part of their Christmas experience, I thought, our Christmas experience, and each year through their anticipation and excitement I’d feel the innocent joy of the season anew.
Then again, maybe not.
“Do you think Hermey is gay?” my daughter asks. Her eyes don’t move from the TV.
She’s referring to the slightly effeminate, thickly blonde-banged misfit elf whose ambition is to practice dentistry, not build toys. I heard her question fine, and this wouldn’t be the first time we’ve discussed homosexuality, but the context throws me. She had to have talked about this at school, I think, but I don’t ask. I don’t want to deny her ownership of her observations and questions, and I’ve already disappointed her with a pathetic response.
“Do you think Hermey is gay?” she asks again, louder this time, but with a practiced nonchalance. Time for me to step up to the plate.
“Why?” I ask. “Did he and Rudolph make out while I was getting more firewood?” She cranes her neck and shoots me a sideways stare, the kind that reads “Da-ad” with two syllables. My son, now awake, giggles and rubs the creases in his cheek with his shoulder. Her veneer of exasperation is transparent, and I pat myself on the back—she recognizes the wise-ass Dad.
“I don’t know,” she says. She turns toward me again and crosses her arms high on her chest. “He just seems like he might be and they make fun of him and treat him like an outcast.”
“Seems like he might be?” I throw back. I see the wheels spinning in her head and I’m curious to hear her articulate these thoughts. Will she mention cultural stereotypes? His voice? His outfit? Instead she just shrugs, and I let it go.
“Maybe he is,” I say. “I don’t know if there was any intention of making Hermey gay, but he did ‘come out’ as a dentist. Whether he’s gay or wants to fill cavities instead of make toys—or both—I suppose the bottom line is that he’s different and for that they treat him like crap.”
“Exactly!” my daughter says, pointing at me with a sugar cookie. “You can’t be different in any way or you’re made fun of or punished.” Pay dirt. She turns back to the TV and wiggles her shoulders into the pillows mounded behind her. Her Smiley-face bathrobe rides up around the sides of her head. She’s settling in.
Her question about Hermey feels oddly satisfying and it strikes me that she’s actively watching Rudolph, that we’re watching it together. Through a different lens than in past years, sure, but I’m grateful for her attention, for her interest, especially since tonight’s viewing involved coercion.
Back when my kids were younger, they happily sat and watched whatever Christmas special I put on. They’d watch anything. As they’ve gotten older, however, Rudolph and the like have become a harder sell. “Let’s watch Rudolph” has increasingly been met with “But tonight they’re running the iCarley and Spongebob and Phineas and Ferb Christmas specials.” Today’s programming poses stiff competition, and I can’t expect them to mimic my interest in seeing the Abominable Snowman yet again, or develop the attachment I feel for the ostrich-riding cowboy on the Island of Misfit Toys.
I can’t make them enjoy a show, or an activity, or even a present for that matter, just because I want them to. Christmas morning demonstrates this with depressing regularity.
“See, Georgia, it’s the cat version of the Pillow-Pet you wanted—the style they stopped making last year. I found one for you,” I’ll tell her, proud of my Christmas gift coup.
“Thanks Dad,” she’ll say, and cast her eyes to the next unwrapped gift. I’ll remind her of her past desire, hoping to reignite her interest, but I’ll eventually move on to the next present, disappointed and ashamed at how badly my feelings are hurt.
Despite my best attempts, they may never develop a soft spot for the Christmas specials of my youth. They may simply see Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer as a crudely animated, politically incorrect sideshow, a dopey relic from their Dad’s past. At least that’s what I’m now seeing through my daughter’s eyes. And really, that’s OK. I’d rather not shave off all the warm and fuzzy from our yearly Rudolph screenings, but so long as they’re willing to watch it with me, to huddle together each year and indulge me in “Rudolph Night”, I can get on board with that.
Up on the TV, Rudolph is returning from his time spent as a runaway to great fanfare. Everyone gathers around in excitement. It seems his “blinkin’ beacon” will help guide Santa’s sleigh through the blizzard and save Christmas.
“At least they all realize they were jerks and apologize to Rudolph,” my daughter says, the cynicism I’d latched onto now missing from her voice.
“Not so fast,” I say. I suggest to her that they aren’t remorseful for making fun of Rudolph because he’s different, that they’re only embracing him now because they found a use for his nose. “What if Rudolph came strolling back in February?” I ask her. “Do you think they’d have greeted him with open arms and apologies then?” She squints at me. It seems I’m suddenly Mr. Bah Humbug. Her expression softens to a smile though, and the tree lights reflect in her braces.
“I guess not,” she says. “Hey, maybe Rudolph should have bargained for toys. ‘Santa, you treated me like a freak. You want me to pull your sleigh? It’s gonna cost you!’” She wags her finger in an “Oh-no-you-didn’t” way before laughing. My son laughs too and imitates his sister. I bob my head side-to-side in mock offense, and Burl Ives begins to sing.
As the credits start to roll, I stand up from the couch and point to the time on the cable box—sign language for “bed time.”
“Do we have time to watch The Grinch Who Stole Christmas?,” my daughter asks.
“You want to watch The Grinch? Now?” I say. I look over at my grinning son and then to the fire in the fireplace, a pile of red coals still filling the room with heat. I pause. I glance again at the time, let out a heavy breath, and try to give the impression that I’m being talked into it.