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Tom Purcell

Tom Purcell: Good grief! Critics miss Christmas specials' points

| Monday, Dec. 3, 2018, 7:03 p.m.
Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer
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Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer

Good grief!

With everything in everyday American life politicized, count on someone, somewhere, being offended by something, anything — even classic Christmas TV specials.

A recent Huffington Post tweet promoting a video about a holiday classic says “‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’ is seriously problematic.”

Why? Because Rudolph’s father, Donner, verbally abuses him for being different; because Santa is a bigot who mocks Donner for having an odd son; because the school coach encourages the other reindeer to bully Rudolph; and because Donner is a sexist who tells his wife she can’t search for the missing Rudolph because it’s man’s work.

One commenter’s tweet in the video sums the criticisms up well: “Yearly reminder that #Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is a parable on racism & homophobia w/Santa as a bigoted exploitative (expletive).”

It’s unclear whether the video was intended as satirical or serious, but at this time of constant outrage, nobody would be surprised if it’s an actual criticism.

Because recent criticisms of “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving” — some charge racism because black character Franklin sits alone on an old lawn chair at one side of the table — are not satire.

Such criticisms miss the point.

According to The Atlantic, the story of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” was created in 1939 by retailer Montgomery Ward , which featured Rudolph in promotional coloring books . In 1949, the story became the basis for a hit song that transformed Rudolph from “misfit to hero.”

In 1964, when the stop-motion animation Christmas special was first broadcast, a whopping 50 percent of the American viewing audience watched it.

Why? Because “Rudolph” is the ultimate underdog story.

We all know, of course, that Rudolph’s “very shiny nose” makes him different; that the other reindeer call him names; and that he triumphs over adversity. He proves his many naysayers were wrong to try to make him conform. He demonstrates that what others saw as his biggest weakness was in fact his biggest strength.

To be sure, Rudolph’s hero journey should be celebrated, and it is, by millions of viewers — many of whom posted sensible tweets showcasing why the HuffPo video so woefully missed his story’s point.

Which brings us to Franklin in “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving.” Charles Schulz introduced Franklin Armstrong in his “Peanuts” comic strip in July 1968.

“At the time, the United States was struggling with desegregation, and while the country had taken several steps to integrate the population, issues about having black and white people attend the same schools, use the same bathrooms, or appear in the same comic strips were still matters of substantial controversy,” reports Snopes.com.

In other words, Schulz took a big chance by introducing a black “Peanuts” character. Correspondence with Harriet Glickman, a teacher in Los Angeles, explains why.

According to NPR, Glickman wrote Schulz a letter explaining why a black Peanuts character “could play a small part in promoting tolerance and interracial friendship.”

Schulz wrote back, explaining that he considered her suggestion, but “he worried that if he created such a character, black parents might think he was condescending to their families.”

Nonetheless, despite backlash from some newspaper editors and other naysayers , Schulz introduced Franklin, using “Peanuts” to help, as best he could, quell our divisions.

Schulz was courageous, not racist.

That such context must be provided to counter critics of America’s long-beloved Christmas specials makes me want to say one thing.

Good grief!

Freelance writer Tom Purcell of Library is author of “Misadventures of a 1970s Childhood.” Visit him on the web at TomPurcell.com.

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