Even though Rudolph had been around as a story book character well before 1949, Gene Autry’s recording in that year of the musical version of the saga made the red-nosed reindeer a standard member of the Yuletide cast in popular culture. I was a nine-year-old at the time and, having successfully pleaded for the Rudolph record, I played it over and over, much to my parents’ frustration. I did the same a year later with the “Frosty the Snowman” recording, which, inspired by Rudolph’s success, Autry also contributed to the Christmas season.
My enjoyment of those two musical sagas was somewhat dampened in those pre-teen years by attacks on Rudolph and Frosty that I began hearing from the pulpit. The popularity of the two was enough of a phenomenon that they became symbols for preachers of what was wrong with our collective Christmas celebrations. Rudolph and Frosty were dangerous diversions from the true meaning of Christmas, we were told. We had to choose between the diverse stories we were hearing. It’s either the ones about reindeer and snowmen or about the marvelous news that the Son of God had been born in Bethlehem.
I did not express my dissent vocally, but in my heart I decided that I did not have to make that choice. Complaints about “the commercialization of Christmas” I could understand and agree with. But this was a different criticism, about the content of what struck me as two pleasant stories that did not tempt me in any way to diminish my sense of wonder regarding the birth of Jesus. The messages of the Gene Autry songs struck me as delightful add-ons to the Christmas season. They may be different stories from the Bethlehem narrative, but they seemed to promote feelings and concerns that were not inappropriate for Advent.
While I got beyond my pre-teen enjoyment of those songs, hearing them in subsequent holiday seasons reminded me of my earlier discontent with the homiletical condemnations of Rudolph and Frosty, and I kept reflecting upon why I had wanted to come to the defense of these tales. Even as a child I could easily poke holes in the plots. If the headlights on our family car were not very effective in making our way through heavy fogs, what good would a glowing red nose be in a sled’s global journey on a foggy Christmas Eve? And a jolly snowman serving as a pied piper figure to a crowd of children? That was not a parade in which I would have been inclined to march.
Still, the stories contained themes that resonated nicely with many of my own childhood experiences. Any kid who had been bullied on a playground could easily identify with a reindeer about whom “all of the other reindeer used to laugh and call him names.” And adults were often quick to dismiss our childhood fantasizings, but in this one case we could be assured that, whatever the grownup verdicts on the Frosty story, “the children know he was made of snow and he came to life one day.”
These thoughts were eventually bolstered for me by J.R.R. Tolkein’s thesis that fairy stories belong to “eucatastrophic” literary genre. The Rudolph and Frosty stories exhibit that “good catastrophe” pattern. The rejected reindeer suddenly becomes the hero who makes the journey safe for others. And when Frosty is beginning to melt, and it looks like it is the end of Frosty, “he waves goodbye saying, ‘Don't you cry, I'll be back again some day.’” The Second Coming of Frosty!
These aren’t dangerous tales. To be sure, they can function as reinforcements of the commercialization of what should be seen as a holy season. But so can the perfectly orthodox carols that play over the speaker systems at Macy’s. There is a distinction between the content of the story and the use to which it is put in the broader culture.
As stories, the sagas of Rudolph and Frosty can actually serve us well as pointers to the Bethlehem story. The Christmas message of the angels is about a world in which the usual lights are not enough to cast off the darkness that oppresses our lives. As a light-provider, Rudolph’s glow fades into insignificance when compared to what happened when suddenly “the glory of the Lord shown around” a band of shepherds tending their sheep on a dark Palestinian night. The light that appeared there not only really did “go down in history”—it still cannot be banished by the darkness of our sinful world. And when the Bethlehem Babe finished his earthly mission, he outdid by far Frosty’s promise to the children. Having defeated death, he will never melt away. Not only will he return to make all things new, but “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”
Richard J. Mouw is president emeritus of Fuller Theological Seminary.