Guest Column
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and DEI in Florida | Column
A literal head-scratching mission trip abroad led a ‘red-nosed’ hairdresser to find his value and is a parable for us this holiday season.
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was adapted to become a classic animated Christmas show in the 1960s.
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was adapted to become a classic animated Christmas show in the 1960s.
Published Dec. 2, 2023

In 1939 the retailer Montgomery Ward asked Robert May, an ad man, to create their own children’s book to draw people to their Chicago store. According to NPR: “May didn’t see himself as a winner. He had always felt like a bit of an outcast, and, at 35, he felt he was far from reaching his potential, pounding out catalog copy instead of writing the Great American Novel as he had always dreamed he would.”

Chris Eaton
Chris Eaton [ Provided ]

May came up with the story of an underdog reindeer in the right place at the right time to save the day. Not everyone was initially a fan of his tale — Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. “Can’t you come up with anything better?” his boss asked, according to the Gettysburg Times. This one manager almost kept millions of children from hearing the heartwarming tale of the ultimate triumph of the rejected reindeer. Robert May’s brother-in-law was a songwriter who developed lyrics and set Rudolph’s story to music. Including all the artists who recorded it, Rudolph eventually sold 150 million copies to become one of the bestselling songs ever.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,

Had a very shiny nose.

And if you ever saw it,

You would even say it glows.

In the creation of his story, May captured something profound about the human condition. Rudolph was different, noticeably distinct. Rudolph is a character who, like May, felt on the outside of and no value to his community. In the 1964 animated Christmas TV movie, Rudolph is bullied and even verbally abused by his father, who tries to cover up the red nose.

All of the other reindeer,

Used to laugh and call him names.

They never let poor Rudolph,

Join in any reindeer games.

The song reveals both the rejection of Rudolph due to his difference and the essential necessity of his uniqueness to the life and goals of the community. According to the tale, Santa delivered gifts for years and years and no one ever thought a red-nosed reindeer could help accomplish the task. Boy, did Rudolph prove them wrong.

The song is a celebration of what we now call DEI — diversity, equity and inclusion. It is a heroic tale about learning the value of the other and realizing how community is enhanced by celebrating those differences. It is a reminder that bullying is almost always related to uncomfortableness with differences in race, religion, ethnicity, sexuality and gender. The other reindeer had never seen a red-nosed reindeer, not in their families or in their neighborhoods or churches. The story is a strong reminder of our human tendency to isolate or marginalize those who are different.

Many of us today seem to act like those foolish reindeer who laughed and called Rudolph names. Rising amounts of vile hate toward the “red-nosed people” in our community has surfaced in the last several years. As a community, we seem to have forgotten the essential value of diversity. Differences are the essential fabric of our culture. As Maya Angelou said, “Diversity makes for a rich tapestry.”

Years ago, I coordinated a service trip of adults to a rural community in Ecuador. Our project was to help construct a school building. One participant approached me and said he felt useless. His belief that he had little value was causing him to pull away from others and sink into some depression. “I don’t know anything about construction, and I don’t know how to teach kids.” I asked what he did for a living, and he responded that he was a hairdresser. “That is tough for a trip like this,” I said. “But you have value and the community here values you.” “Yeah right,” he replied and walked away.

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Four days into the trip most of the team members were scratching their heads. Almost all of our group had head lice, which they caught by letting kids wear their hats. Guess who turned out to be the hero of the trip? Our own red-nosed reindeer, our hairdresser. He was the one who knew what to do and helped everyone through the experience. The team relied upon him. His knowledge and expertise kept the team fully engaged with the community. I was so very thankful to have a professional hairdresser on the trip. We needed him.

That’s the thing with diversity — you never quite know when you will need the uniqueness of each individual. The differences between us are a gift.

As you sing the song this season remember that “red nosed” others might be the ones to save the day, like Rudolph. Many of those in power in Florida reject DEI and negate the “red-nosed” others. During this holiday season, always remember that it is not the “normal” reindeers that go down in history.

Then one foggy Christmas Eve Santa came to say “Rudolph, with your nose so bright Won’t you guide my sleigh tonight?”

Then how the reindeer loved him,

As they shouted out with glee,

“Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer You’ll go down in history.”

Chris Eaton and his company Bridge Builders coordinated international service-learning trips for more than 30 years.