It’s December and the ubiquitous holiday music – playing since mid-November – reminds us that Christmas is just around the corner. I’ve always been troubled by one particular Christmas carol I first learned at the tender age of 4: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

You know the story, right? Young buck born with funny nose. Ostracized and bullied for it.

Naturally, an extenuating circumstance (“one foggy Christmas eve”) conspires to suddenly demonstrate the “handicap” is really a valued asset:

Santa came to say: “Rudolph, with your nose so bright, won’t you guide my sleigh tonight?”

Even as a small child, I always felt that the next line would be Rudolph’s response to Santa. Instead we get:

“Then how the reindeer loved him…”

Excuse me?

Then how the reindeer loved him…”? “Then“?

santa rudolph rankin bassNow I grant you I was a very weird 4-year old but when Miss Kelch was teaching us this song in kindergarten and we were instructed to blow kisses to act out the line about loving Rudolph, I wanted to raise my 4-year old hand and say: “But Miss Kelch! This makes no sense! All it took was a word from Santa to go from not letting Rudolph play in any reindeer games to blowing kisses at him? Why did the reindeer need permission to change their gestalt?”

I wanted to ask that. I really did. But I couldn’t.

I didn’t yet know the word “gestalt.”

Thirteen years later, I was the high school yearbook editor. I remember one particular late fall afternoon when the boys on the staff were in the school library (I’m not sure where the girls were that day), sorting through the various senior pictures, making sure they were laid out correctly on the pages for publication. All of a sudden, I heard “Hey! Who is she?”

Such a question over-carbonated our teenaged libidos. We rushed to crowd around the picture: sandy blonde hair cascading to her shoulders, perfect cheekbones, and a smile that – even in black and white – seemed to say: “yes.”

No one remembered seeing her before. She was in our Senior Class, we were months from graduating, and no one remembered seeing her before.

I flipped over the picture and read the index card paper clipped to it. Her name didn’t ring a bell. I wasn’t even sure which clique she was in.

Then someone said: “She’s really beautiful!”

And she was. I might have asked her out – assuming I, at that awkward age, had the social skills to do so. (I didn’t.) But that simple plan was no longer possible anyway. A single spoken comment regarding her beauty had punctured her anonymity chrysalis, once and forever. I’m certain this girl never understood why there was a sudden blitz on her from half the boys in our class. In a single instant, we had collectively acknowledged that this girl goddess precious slice of femininity – she – was no longer invisible. And, thus, no longer available.

Then how the reindeer loved her…

Red vineyards van gogh - lower resVincent Van Gogh sold exactly one painting in his lifetime. You’d think that his physician, Dr. Gachet, would have at least purchased one of the two portraits Van Gogh painted of him. But no. It was only after the extensive efforts of his sister-in-law, Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, and Vincent’s death, that his work saw the light of day.

Then how the reindeer loved him…

Guitarist extraordinaire Robert Johnson had a devil of a time: died in poverty and had to be dead for over 20 years before a re-issue of his (then) obscure recordings in 1961 allowed his playing and music to be celebrated (and infinitely pervade popular music).

Then how the reindeer loved him…

raging bull de niro pesciJoe Pesci had precisely two film roles between 1961 and 1976. Really. Two. Both minor roles. What? You find that amusing? You think it’s funny Pesci effectively retired from acting? Well, retired until Robert DeNiro saw the 1976 film and begged Martin Scorsese to cast Pesci in Raging Bull.

Then how the reindeer loved him…

Matthew Weiner wrote the pilot of Mad Men as a spec script. Couldn’t sell it (should’ve used better pitch men, I guess). David Chase, the creator of the HBO series, The Sopranos, saw it, loved it, hired him. Weiner won a few Emmys for The Sopranos. So, when The Sopranos concluded, what did HBO — which had already benefited from Weiner’s work — do with the Mad Men spec script? Bada-bing: Pass. Fortunately, AMC didn’t.

Then how the reindeer loved it…

See the similarities? (Besides the repetition of a key lyric, I mean.)

The special qualities that received public accolades were already there, fully formed. Santa just hadn’t given us reindeer the go-ahead to perceive it.

It’s a funny thing. We seek the new, the different, the enlightening. But rather than having the courage to recognize it for ourselves, we wait for others to give us permission.

The same trap is available to the artist who can decide to chase a trend in the hopes of gaining public acceptance. Chasing is the antithesis of leading, however. Better to stay authentic and trust one’s own vision. For the vision may already be complete. It’s just that the artist doesn’t have a “big name” and is still waiting on Santa’s blessing.

On the other hand, Santa’s market inefficiencies are our gain. We can partake in our own active artistic journey of discovery even as patrons.

All we have to do is not act like sheep reindeer.

Recent polls suggest that the average American past the age of 27 doesn’t believe in Santa Claus anymore. So why wait for Santa to tell us what’s special? All we need is the same gumption required to step outside the reindeer groupthink and say aloud: “Cool! A red nose!”

santa wavingSo, it’s December. There are Christmas carols playing. But it’s not foggy. It’s not yet Christmas eve. And – spoiler alert – Santa Claus doesn’t exist.

And that’s okay. For it’s sunny in our hearts. It’s clear in our heads. We don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. Talent is everywhere. We can see it – and name it – for ourselves.

Then how the reindeer will love us… (and, children, this is where you blow the kisses).

Other holiday-flavored essays:
How the Critic Panned the Show!
Guys and Dolls
Secret Santa

Originally published December 1, 2016 in Footlights.