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The hidden (to some) meanings of the carols

"Rudolph": Tale of angst or mere bioluminescence?

By Cary Mazer

Last year, after fifty-odd years of being able to sing "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" from beginning to end - as any red-blooded American baby boomer can - I realized that I had missed a major plot point.

I got that Rudolph felt left out when the other eight reindeer (no doubt the ones named by Clement Clarke Moore in "A Visit from Saint Nicholas") wouldn't let him join in their reindeer games. (I would always find myself picturing reindeer badminton and reindeer Parcheesi.)

I got that, one Christmas Eve, Santa invited Rudolph to lead his present-laden sleigh on its annual ride from rooftop to rooftop around the world, and that this sudden elevation of employment status made Rudolph the big reindeer on campus.

And I got that, like "The Ugly Duckling" and "The Sneetches," the song is a parable of consolation for the outcast and the bullied, in this case a victim of discrimination against glow-in-the-dark proboscises.

But last year, while listening to the song amid a block of similarly schlocky novelty songs in the seasonal rotation on B101, I had a eureka moment: "Oh, I get it! It's foggy!"

It wasn't that Santa suddenly took a liking to Rudolph or noticed that he was being picked on and pitied him. He needed Rudolph's glowing nose as a beacon to avoid a midair collision with a 767 or a Strategic Air Command fighter jet! Rudolph wasn't getting any special favors; he just had a special talent that Santa happened to need that night.

How could I have missed that all these years? What's particularly embarrassing about this is that I make my living as a theater scholar: I'm supposed to be a good close-reader of texts. I pride myself on finding hidden meanings, sussing out the deeper motivations beneath what people say and do - the subtext beneath the spoken text. How could I have misread what actors call the "given circumstances" of the scene and so unduly complicated Santa's utilitarian objective?

The same thing happened about 10 years ago. My wife, Janet, and I were driving up to Ridgefield, Conn., to spend Christmas with friends. We were switching from one oldies station to another as the signals faded, and as we passed through the Oranges on the Garden State Parkway, one of them played "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus." Suddenly, I shouted out, "Oh, I get it: Daddy is dressed up as Santa Claus! That's why Mommy was kissing him! The kids didn't know that Santa Claus is really Daddy in a red fat suit."

This is getting embarrassing.

But I might have finally figured out what my problem is. Like any Jew growing up in the great Christmas emporium that is America, I both absorb the culture of Christmas - the high culture of virgin births and guiding stars, and the low culture of tree ornaments and novelty songs - and let it pass through me without processing it. Some things about Christmas are supposed to be truly, divinely magical. But the other stuff - the stuff that struck me, as an outsider, as mundane and commercial - just seems silly.

Like any other Jewish kid (and like my 7-year-old daughter, Hope, today), I learned to keep my mouth shut when a Christian kid in my second-grade class still believed in Santa. We Jews don't want to ruin the magic for the Christians - even if we did notice that the toys appeared to be coming from stores at the mall rather than the North Pole.

But on some subliminal level, I must have figured that the mundane aspects of Christmas were supposed to be miraculous, too, and that's what I wanted these tacky Christmas songs to be about. Rather than assuming Santa had just checked Accuweather for that night's visibility, I wanted to believe he had looked into the secret place in Rudolph's heart and sensed his outsider's weltschmerz. I wanted Mommy to really be kissing Santa Claus. If you can believe in Santa Claus, why not believe in that, too?

In George Bernard Shaw's play Saint Joan, the cynical but wise Archbishop of Rheims explains that "a miracle . . . is an event which creates faith" - regardless of whether it's caused by a magician's sleight of hand or the hand of God. And anything that creates faith, so long as it's not meant to deceive, is a good thing.

Not being of that faith, I am prepared to see everything about it - even Santa Claus and a reindeer with a Day-Glo nose - as something that creates faith, albeit someone else's.

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus; and if you look quickly, you can catch a glimpse of him kissing Mommy.