Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer & the birth of Jesus

Each December, we engage with the same stories over and over again. On one hand, we’ve got the birth narrative of Jesus. On the other hand, we’ve got a collection of well-loved holiday movies

Year after year, these same Christmas stories are retold side-by-side, yet rarely are they harmonized. So, what would it look like for these stories to be in conversation with one another?

One Christmas special that I’ve seen too many times to remember is the 1964 stop-motion Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer. The odd 47-minute-long special about misfit toys and a misfit reindeer had its origin in the Johnny Marks song popularized by Gene Autry in 1949. While the movie is often viewed, it’s the song, which is repeated far more often, that I want to focus on.

It’s story is fairly simple. Rudolph has a unique nose. It glows a bright red. The glowing makes him a social outcast, with the other reindeer not letting him in on their games. But the fog rolls in one Christmas Eve, making it too treacherous for Santa to deliver presents. So, the crimson clad elf enlists Rudolph to be the lead reindeer, guiding the sleigh with that fog-piercing beacon of a nose. It works like a charm and everyone loves Rudolph for it.

So, before we get to how it stacks up against the Jesus story, let’s extend the Rudolph story a bit further.

A year goes by and our hero of last year’s Christmas makes his way to Santa’s cottage at the North Pole, ready to resume him spot at the head of the reindeer team pulling the toy-filled sleigh. Santa is packing a few last gifts in and Rudolph comes up from behind.

“Hey-ho, Santa!” belts out Rudolph, causing the Jolly One to give a startled jump. “I’m ready to go!”

Santa turns around, a bit miffed, having bumped his head against the sleigh, and says, “Take a look at the sky, Rudolph. No fog. You won’t be needed this year.”

As Santa turns back to his packing, Rudolph realizes that he’s had his one shot at leading the team and he probably won’t be doing it ever again.

That’s one scenario. Let’s try another.

Now that Rudolph is out of the closet with his red nose and the days of ridicule are behind him, other Lite-Brite-nosed reindeer come out of their nose closets. But red noses are so last year and yellow noses are the thing this year. So, Santa picks a yellow-nosed young doe to lead the reindeer team, leaving Rudolph at home with his out-of-date red honker.

OK. Let’s try another.

Rudolph stays on Santa’s team for a few more years, but those thick fogs never come back again. He does his duty and eventually retires, as do all reindeer at some point. In his retirement, he becomes a regular at the local bar, where he tells anyone who will listen the story about the time he saved Christmas with his glowing nose. People humor him, but mostly he’s become a drunken disgrace, living in a long-faded glory day. Sure, he went down in history, but mostly, he’s history himself.

Here’s a quick one.

Rudolph goes through puberty and his nose stops glowing. End of story.

One more.

Santa assembles the reindeer, lines them up, and launches into a lecture.

“I’ve had it up to here with your reindeer games!” he bellows. “Every year, I tell you that all of this petty in-fighting has to go. But does it? Nooooo! It’s the same old thing. Over and over and over again. And every year, I threaten to be done with the lot of you. Well, this year, I am. You’re done. You’ve been replaced.”

And then he shows them the Claus 3000, his new space-aged sleigh. It’s unique propulsion system and lighting array make reindeer magic and Rudolph’s nose unnecessary. Not only is Rudolph out of a job, but no reindeer are needed at all.

The sad truth is this: Rudolph is just a nose. That’s all anyone really cares about him.

When he’s not allowed in those reindeer games, it’s because of the nose. When Santa wants him to guide the sleigh, it’s because of the nose. Without the red nose, he’s not rejected. Without the red nose, he’s not recruited. His nose defines him.

That part about “then all the reindeer loved him” is the worst. And Rudolph knows it.

There they were, mocking him and excluding him on Dec. 23. But now that he’s made the big leagues, everyone wants to be his friend. Nice! We know how deep that kind of friendship goes. It’s every celebrity’s nightmare. “How do I know that the people who say they love me actually love me and not my wealth and my fame?”

Rudolph has been functionalized. When his nose added nothing to Santa, he could be ignored. But it’s only when he can do something for Santa does he get the notice he’s been longing for his whole life. And that notice only really boils down to: Can you do this function I need to have done?

This is such an American story, because this is what we do to one another all the time. We mock or ignore people because of their differences until those differences can be useful to us. And when they’re no longer special, we drop them like hot rocks.

The professional athlete who can no longer perform at such a high level is replaced by one of a throng of others just waiting for him to drop off. The actress who has played so many sexy roles gains some wrinkles and some pounds and is nudged out of the limelight. And so it goes. (I’ve written more on our disposable culture here.)

OK. So, how does this connect with the story of the birth of Jesus?

It’s amazing how no one who has an encounter with Jesus in his birth story does so while doing their job.

(I’ve written a brief poem about this called Unemployed at Christmas.)

The sheep herders are not herding their sheep. In fact, they’ve left their flock in the field and have abandoned their jobs in order to see Jesus. This is not helpful for job security. It is, however, what worshipers do, what people in relationships do.

The magi are not doing any magic. (You realize that the word magi is plural for magus, which is Greek for magician, right?) Sure, they followed a star. But when they get to Jesus, all they’re doing is worshiping and giving gifts. No jobs. No functions. Just relationship stuff.

Joseph is known as a carpenter, but he doesn’t even get to make a crib for his firstborn. He lays his child in a feeding trough. And if you know anything about first-time parents, they’re way into making things and preparing things and making sure that everything is ultra-healthy for their first kids. If they have more kids, they’re less uptight about all that. But even with his first child, Joseph is remarkably non-functional. No carpentry. Just a husband. Just a dad.

Even Zechariah the priest doesn’t get to do his job. For the entire pregnancy of his wife Elizabeth before their son John is born, he’s mute. Just think of a pastor not being able to speak for nine months. Talk about a loss of vocational identity! And how does he get his voice back? By writing his son’s name on a piece of paper.

In fact, the only people who continue to do their jobs in the entire story are the Bible scholars in Jerusalem, Herod the king, and the soldiers who kill the babies in Bethlehem. And, yep, they’re the bad guys.

The Bible scholars do their job perfectly. They know exactly where the Messiah is to be born and give impeccable directions — directions they fail to follow themselves.

Herod is quite kingly in his actions. He welcomes foreign dignitaries and he sends out soldiers. But he never meets the child king.

And the soldiers, well, they followed their orders.

The Rudolph story and the Jesus birth story collide in how we treat people. Are we noses or are we human beings? Are we functions or are we persons in relationship?

Jesus came to restore our humanity to us and to invite us into a relationship with the living God and with one another, regardless of how well we function or not.