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All of the Other Reindeer
Searching for the true story behind one foggy Christmas Eve
The story of that night became legend long ago, and it’s now a vital part of the holiday’s lore: an outcast turned unlikely hero, doubters turned believers, a potential disaster turned into triumph.
How much do we really know about what happened on that “one foggy Christmas Eve”, though? It’s been nearly eight decades, and a few of the key figures involved have passed on. Others remain, though, and for the first time, they’re telling their side of events.
The Action Cookbook Newsletter conducted an extensive, months-long investigation, and we uncovered a far different story than the one that went down in history. This is:
“All of the other reindeer / used to laugh and call him names…”
“I’ve made peace with a lot of things in my life. But that lie has haunted me for eighty years.”
Prancer is still striking, even at his age. Flecks of grey pepper his brow, and his antlers are snowier than they once were, but his eyes still flash an almost luminescent blue as he stares out the window to the snowy Finnish countryside surrounding the tidy, comfortable cabin he’s called home for decades. He’s trim, fit, and muscular, and it’s not hard to convince yourself that he could slip on the reins and pull a sleigh on a moment’s notice, even now.
In the wild, reindeer only live 15-18 years, on average, but he’s no average reindeer. He’s a former member of The Eight, the elite group of specially-trained caribou that provide the freight for Santa Claus’s annual missions around the globe. He won’t state exactly how old he is; he bristled slightly when I first inquired, sensitive to the insinuation that there was something unnatural about a reindeer living this long.
By most credible accounts, though, he’s at least two hundred years old. That means he’s had a lot of time to think about what happened on that famous Christmas Eve in 1938.
Before he’s willing to discuss that night, however, he wants to make sure that I understand what things were like before.
“It meant something to be part of The Eight.”
He hasn’t spoken to the other surviving members in a few years, but there’s a deep note of respect in his voice when he speaks of them that underlines his connection to them, one I would sense in each of my interviews with the others. It’s a fraternal bond that transcends their differences, not unlike the bond that former presidents seem to share.
“Being a sleigh-puller was dangerous work before Visit. Us reindeer? We were just cannon fodder to Claus. He’d round up a crew in early December, and just grab whoever was young, strong, and willing to throw themselves into danger. Experience didn’t matter; obeisance and naivete did. There weren’t any protections for us, no safety protocols—the North Pole exists outside of all of that, and working the kind of secrecy that we did meant that we were at the mercy of him and his priorities. And his only real priority was doing the work faster each year. In 1820, he left with a crew of twenty-three reindeer. You know how many came home? Five. I lost two uncles that night—good, strong reindeer, reindeer with families of their own. There was no acknowledgement of that sacrifice; only cheers for him getting the deliveries made on time. Visit changed all of that.”
He’s referring to A Visit From St. Nicholas, the famous poem published anonymously in 1823 and later attributed to professor Clement Clarke Moore. The poem is widely credited for introducing mass audiences to the modern understanding of the Santa Claus story, codifying much of the imagery that we know and love today.
“He hated Visit so much. It’s ironic, of course—it elevated his profile tremendously. Without it, he might not be the figure he is today. But those three lines… well, those three lines gave us a shred of power, and he hated giving away any control.”
The lines in question pass quickly, only three out of fifty-six in the poem:
And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name;
"Now, Dasher! now, Dancer! now, Prancer and Vixen!
On, Comet! on, Cupid! on, Donner and Blitzen!
“And called them by name,” Prancer laughs, still smiling at the memory centuries later.
“That brought us out of the darkness, if only a half-step. Suddenly, if one of us disappears, people would be asking what happened to us. He couldn’t discard us after that, and that infuriated him. It’s funny, too—he didn’t take exception to anything else in that poem that I would have. I mean, ‘little old elf’? ‘clothes tarnished with ashes and soot’? ‘chubby and plump like a bowl full of jelly’? Moore spent a quarter of that poem talking about what a dirty, fat little troll he was, and all he took exception to was the fact that anyone else got mentioned by name.”
Prancer’s blue eyes glisten for a moment, and he looks out the window again, his hoof lightly grazing the rim of a teacup, its contents long since gone cold.
“We went into that Christmas as just the latest group of bodies he’d pulled off the tundra, and we left it as a team. We never forgot how lucky we were to have each other, even if we didn’t always see eye-to-eye.”
Of the eight reindeer in that 1823 crew, five survive to this day, though all have long since retired from active duty, their titles passed down to younger reindeer in a sort of peerage. I was able to speak with four, though Prancer was by far the most forthcoming; he’s long viewed himself as the group’s unofficial historian. He’s fiercely protective of the others, even those who have passed on. I asked about his relationship with Vixen, often considered the most media-friendly figure in the group, who passed away in 1987. He stiffens; the mention of her name stirs something loose in him.
“Okay, you see—there’s my point. They accused us of name-calling, but you slap her with that label? Vixen. I don’t blame Moore for that one—he heard what he heard that night—but it always angered me that Claus stuck her with that nickname. Hannah was a beautiful cow, there’s no doubt about that, but she had the warmest, sunniest personality. You don’t see a lot of that up in Lapland, you know? We’re a reserved people, but not Hannah. She could light up any room, and not with some silly nose. So, how do they treat her? By labeling her as some kind of seductress or harlot. She was a sweet, innocent girl, but a label like that sticks.”
He snorts a little bit, thinking hard about what he’s going to say next.
“They weren’t exactly being kind by calling me Prancer, now, were they?”
Most of the names weren’t ideal, he continues.
"You know that Dunder and Blixem is Dutch for thunder and lightning, right? Well, that old elf never bothered to get anyone’s name right, Moore overhears what he says, and now they’re Donner and Blitzen. A few decades later, a wayward wagon train takes a mountain pass in winter, and now instead of thundering power you sound like a cannibalistic colonist. Meanwhile, poor Blixem—it made him sound like a drunk, and that became a self-fulfilling prophecy. We’d finish a Yule Run and he’d spent the rest of the winter foraging for fly agaric mushrooms and staggering around until summer. He called it “getting Blitzed”—tried to play it off like a fun little joke, but it really haunted him.”
“So yes, I take exception to the idea that we were the ones calling names.”
The names weren’t ideal, but the codification of a properly-identified team of eight tiny reindeer held for decades, and working conditions improved.
“The old man didn’t like it, but I don’t think he knew what to do about it for the longest time. It wasn’t like he could pull that sleigh himself,” Prancer chuckles, disdainfully. “So he had to make do. We weren’t getting the royal treatment or anything—it’s not like there are many other steady jobs for reindeer, and the magic of the North Pole did keep us al—”
He catches himself, realizing he’s said too much.
“He was at least forced to pretend to keep us happy, and for a while, that was enough for us. We didn’t know what he was planning, though.”
“Sleigh-packing. That’s all it was. He realized that if he couldn’t get rid of us, he was going to make us less important,” Prancer notes.
Dasher is more blunt.
“That kid was an act of war.”
Long the team’s speedster—able to break off in mid-air, swoop to recover a fallen gift and rejoin the formation without slowing the rest down a single beat—Dasher’s not one to drag out a conversation. He’s hampered by an arthritic knee now, and his once-chiseled frame has filled out with the bulk of age, but his mouth is as quick as ever.
“Santa wanted to break us, and the kid was going to be how he did it.”
The other reindeer rarely address Rudolph by name, though I was surprised to find that it didn’t seem to come from a place of animus toward the so-called “most famous reindeer of all”. Rather, the members of The Eight simply find it hard to consider Rudolph as a discrete personality, even now. He’s a part of their story, and they often betray a sympathy for him, despite the at-times-adversarial nature of their relationship. Given the stark age difference between The Eight and their would-be standard-bearer, though, this concern often carries a condescending tone.
“It wasn’t the kid’s fault. He just shouldn’t have been there in the first place,” Dasher continues, shakily rising from a bed of hay for a drink of water. “But Santa became dead-set on shaking up the dynamic. He was going to put his guy in there—someone that he could manipulate, someone he could control.”
He takes a long, lapping drink, then clears his throat and puts a finer point on the statement:
“Someone young and dumb.”
Selective breeding of reindeer had always been a fact of life at the North Pole. Although all of the original members of The Eight were born in the wild, generations of reindeer had been bred in captivity to serve a variety of roles around the sprawling facility. Some hauled cargo between the scattered workshops and packaging facilities, others served as a sort of ‘scout team’, assisting in the many training exercises the reindeer would be subjected to throughout the year—the so-called “reindeer games”—and others still were raised as sleigh team alternates, should one of The Eight ever be unable to perform due to injury, illness or some other reason.
Dasher had noticed a more ominous tone to the reindeer husbandry in the years leading up to Foggy Night, however.
“The calves coming out of the nursery in the early 1930s… there was something different going on. Before, the breeders had always aimed for a well-rounded calf; strong and durable, intelligent, docile. You’d look to make a reindeer that could endure the demands of the job—and it’s a demanding job, a harsh environment—but still be trainable and, frankly, pleasant to be around. We’re stuck up there 364 days a year, you’ve gotta be able to get along with a reindeer, y’know?”
He seems lost in thought for a moment, rubbing his antlers against a tree.
“We started seeing a lot of problems. Reindeer that were strong as hell, but easily injured. Reindeer that were as fast as the dickens but painfully clumsy. Aggressive ones, vicious ones—those calves usually disappeared pretty quick. Some of them, they’d just have these empty, vacant stares… like there wasn’t a single light on inside their head. They’d have unusual traits, too. Strange colorations, oddly-formed antlers, reindeer that were just way too big or way too small. It began to feel like someone inside that barn was searching for something that they just hadn’t found yet.”
“It was unsettling.”
Then, in 1936, a calf was born like no reindeer anyone had ever seen before.
“Santa was beside himself with glee when the kid was born. It was then that we realized what he’d been breeding for those last few years. Bioluminescence.”
Unbeknownst to the other reindeer, for the past decade North Pole biologists had been working to introduce bioluminescence—the emission of light by a living organism, a quality typically only seen in marine life and select arthropods—into a large, terrestrial mammal. Genetic engineering was in its early stages in those days, and their efforts were clumsy, ham-fisted, scattershot. The scientists had tinkered and toyed with reindeer genes in an attempt to unlock something they hoped might be hidden away in their DNA, and though they’d had many failures along the way, it quickly became apparent to Dasher and the others that they had finally succeeded.
“Kid [expletive] glowed, man. Craziest thing.”
Reindeer Engineering Test Case X0138 or—as he’d come to be known around the world, “Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer”—exhibited a quality never before seen in reindeer: a nose that glowed a bright, shining red. This is the rare part of the story that the version dominant in the public consciousness gets right—if you’d seen it, you would’ve said it glowed, too. His arrival on the scene at the North Pole was shocking to nearly everyone. Except, of course, for the man who’d worked so hard to make it happen.
“Santa couldn’t stop talking about the kid. How he was going to revolutionize our job, make us faster and safer more efficient. How this was only the tip of the iceberg, that he’d cracked the code of reindeer genetics and how all future reindeer would put us ‘wild-born mongrels’ to shame. ‘We’ve done nature one better!”, he told us. They had a whole big presentation where they showed the kid off to us like he was the latest model year of a car or something. He kept hitting on this phrase, too… he kept saying that the kid would become ‘the most famous reindeer of all!’”
“That stung, because it was clearly directed at us, at The Eight. At that point in history, I’d really thought he’d started to make peace with our fame, however moderate it was. He’d been friendlier, less confrontational when we’d ask for little things like stable repairs. It turns out he wasn’t being nice because he’d decided to tolerate us. He was being nice because he was planning to defeat us.”
Reindeer aren’t fully mature until around four years of age, so Dasher knew that there was time, if not much. The child—the one Santa called Rudolph—was being groomed to revolutionize the way Christmas business was done, and every day until then was going to be dedicated to preparing him for that task.
“That poor kid was just stuck in the middle of a union-busting.”
“They never let poor Rudolph play in any reindeer games…”
“I just wish that the public had understood what that really meant.”
Dancer lives in Canada now, in a chic, well-appointed flat in Vancouver. After years of toil as one of The Eight, she retired in the 1970s to pursue her original dream, the one that had become a snide nickname for her while working as a sleigh-puller.
“I had always wanted to be a dancer, but the opportunities just weren’t there for reindeer at the time. Show horses, perhaps, but not a young calf from Lapland. I held on to those dreams for so long, though. I’d told myself that pulling the sleigh was a stepping stone—it’d get me out of my small town, I could stay fit working like that, and I’d still go on auditions in my free time.” She chuckles. “How many young people do you think have told themselves a story like that over the years? If you think your dreams are going to happen in your spare time, you’ll find your spare time is nothing but a dream. I mean, really—where was I going to audition, anyways? There aren’t exactly talent scouts for the Bolshoi hanging around the Arctic Circle, hoping to spot their next prima ballerina pulling a sleigh.”
She doesn’t sound regretful; only bemused at the folly of youth.
“By the time I left the Pole, I was too old to pursue a serious career as a professional dancer, but it didn’t matter. My perspective had shifted; I’d seen what happens to young people thrown into the spotlight when they’re not ready. I moved here, signed up for some classes, and danced like no one was watching. I still do it. Every week.”
I ask her to tell me about the reindeer games, and her face darkens.
“That damned song, it made it sound like we were keeping the child away from Red Rover, hopscotch and jumprope! The truth is, we were resistant to the boy joining in the Reindeer Games, but that’s because of what those games actually were—an arduous, cruel, belittling training regimen. Nicholas, bless his heart, he came from a very old-school mindset when it came to athletic performance. If you weren’t injured, you weren’t trying. I know that most people probably imagine that North Pole reindeer spend eleven months of the year just lazing around, sunning ourselves and eating bonbons, but it was a year-round job, and the Reindeer Games were the absolute worst part of it.”
She stretches her long, elegant neck, sniffing around for the words.
“Only the most meat-headed, aggressive louts enjoyed the Reindeer Games.”
“I freakin’ loved the Reindeer Games,” Comet grins.
I’ve tracked down The Eight’s alpha reindeer in a small town in Norway where, after a torn ligament ended his long career of sleigh-pulling, he became a local legend coaching youth football. If Dasher was the team’s speedster, Comet was the muscle, the fire, the—
“The straw that stirs the drink,” he says, seeing me taking notes in my pad. “Put that in your thing. Everyone knew I was the leader. The others were there to support me, and I was there to actually pull the sleigh. ‘Course, you only get one shot a year to get it right. Means you gotta stay sharp the rest of the year. That’s what the Games were all about. Santa gives you a lump of coal, you just gotta press on it hard enough and you’ll have a diamond, pal.”
“Are you talking to Comet for this piece?”, Dancer inquired near the conclusion of our interview. I explained that yes, I would be.
She sighed, deeply but with understanding, like a frustrated parent.
“That reindeer,” she said, collecting her thoughts, “brings new meaning to the word ‘bull’”.
“You ever play ball?”, Comet asks, mouth half-full of moss. “There’s this drill, they call it the Oklahoma Drill. Can’t do it much now, with the lawyers and all, but lemme tell you what. Reindeer invented that. That’s our move. You get two males fired up over some cow, they’ll go head-to-head. Stags bein’ bulls. What’s better than that?”
“The Reindeer Games,” Dancer noted stiffly, “were his way of punishing us for staying on the team.” Unlike some of the others, she explained, she doesn’t dislike Santa Claus as a man. “His methods—well, they’re certainly not acceptable by modern standards, and none of us enjoyed them at the time. Nicholas has been doing this for centuries, though, and he’s simply a product of his time. He thinks that aggression is the solution to all problems, and that belief comes through in the Reindeer Games.”
“Okay, so there’s this one Game,” Comet says, already beginning to laugh, “called Tailspin. That was one of my favorites. They’d put a bag over your head, tie your hooves together, pop you in the back of a sleigh, climb up to about 30,000 feet and dump you out, make sure you’re spinnin’ on the way down. Then you’d have to get the blindfold off, untie yourself and figure out which way you’re flyin’ before it’s too late. Santa said it was to train us in case there was ever a hijacking, but that’s just bunk. He liked watching the drill for the same reason I did: it’s fun to watch a reindeer freak out on the way down.”
Hesitant to hear the answer, I ask if any reindeer ever simply failed to complete the drill.
“Hell, everyone completes it one way or another, amiright?” he cackles. “Never left a reindeer up there, that’s what I always tell the calves.”
“The child wasn’t but 18 months old when Nicholas first tried to put him into one of the Games. We all refused, flatly. Those games were dangerous for us, and we were all adults, seasoned professionals by this time. That poor child would’ve been broken in two if we put him through the same set of drills. I wouldn’t call our action a strike, but we made it very clear to Nicholas and his men: if the child was put in the Games, none of us would participate. It was a real moment of solidarity for us, and I know it was difficult for some of the other members to do.”
“Nah, I didn’t want the kid in the Games, either, but don’t get me wrong—I ain’ no softie,” Comet explains as we lug Gatorade coolers back from his practice field to the athletics offices. “I just didn’t want him gettin’ hurt to be on me. I knew Santa spent a lot of money makin’ that kid’s nose glow. Well, I tell you what—I get to competing, I don’t have a ‘slow’ button, doesn’t matter if it’s the Big Game or a practice, you’re getting 110% Comet. All gas, no brakes. I black out sometimes I’m goin’ so hard. Doesn’t matter if I leave Prancer or Dasher hurtin’ the next day, but I break the big man’s new golden boy, I’m goin’ to the Swedish meatball factory. I’m no fool.”
“I honestly didn’t think that we’d be able to stop it,” Dancer notes ruefully, “but Nicholas capitulated. He said that we were right, the child was too young to be in the Reindeer Games. I hoped that that would be the end of things for a while—you see, no one can go out on a sleigh team without completing the whole course of Games. It’d be foolish to try; as much as we hated the Games, they really did make us sharper. There were a couple of years in there where, absent that training, I might not have made it home. Nicholas knew that—we knew that he knew that. If we kept the child out of the Reindeer Games, we could stave off his participation in the Christmas Eve run for a few more years. That was in his best interest as much as it was in our own, I assure you of this.”
“I had no idea how dedicated to his plan Nicholas was.”
“Sendin’ a kid into the Games woulda been cruel.” Comet spits into a soda can. “Sending a kid out on the Big Night without the games? [expletive] criminal, man.”
“Then one foggy Christmas Eve, Santa came to say…”
“Perhaps I was foolish,” Cupid says hesitatingly, “but I never believed that he would intentionally put us in danger.”
Cupid was always considered the peacemaker amongst The Eight, a role that lent him his nickname. Where Comet could be brash and abrasive, Prancer icy and cutting, Blitzen prone to bouts of name-calling, Cupid was always the one working to hold a tenuous peace.
“I grew up in a large family, and so I was accustomed to conflict. I always believed that there was common ground to be found, and I tried to see everyone’s perspective. I thought that these were good things—I thought that I was helping everyone by approaching difficult situations this way. Unfortunately, it meant that I was easily taken advantage of; my trust in everyone’s good nature could be turned against me.”
Cupid has agreed to meet at a quiet, dark bar, located on the opposite side of town from where he and his family now live. In phone conversations leading up to our interview, he was cautious, guarded—clearly uncomfortable with discussing a past he's tried to put behind him for years. He watches as a bead of condensation rolls down the outside of the beer glass that’s sat, untouched, in front of him since we arrived twenty minutes earlier.
“I will always regret the role I played in allowing Foggy Night to go forward.”
Christmas Eve, 1938. A night that would be immortalized the following year in a coloring book written by Robert Lewis May for the Montgomery Ward department store chain and later adapted into a cartoon, a song, a stop-motion animated television special, countless books, toys, films, sequels—the story would take on a life of its own.
To The Eight, however, it’s simply referred to as “Foggy Night”.
Despite the name, it was crisp and clear at the North Pole that evening.
The Eight—Dasher and Dancer and Prancer and Vixen, Comet and Cupid and Donner and Blitzen—the same eight reindeer that had ridden together as a team for more than one hundred years—was preparing for what seemed to be a routine Christmas Eve run, one that they had down to a well-honed craft at this point in their careers. The runs had gotten more ambitious, surely—population growth, industrialization and the increased commercialization of Christmas meant that they were delivering many more things to many more homes than they ever could have imagined on that fateful night in 1823—but they had grown together as a team.
“We knew each other’s strengths and weaknesses. We knew how to balance as a team. We had strong runners like Dasher and Comet, and finesse performers like Dancer and Prancer. Donner and Blitzen, those two were muscles, and Vixen, boy, that girl was smart. She could see a problem coming three steps before any of us. Hell, if we had a weak link, it must’ve been me, but I did my best. I coördinated communications. You look at any drawing of us, and it seems like Mr. Claus is the one telling us what to do, the one driving the sleigh. That’s simply not practical, though. With an operation like ours, he needed a team of reindeer who could drive themselves, while he kept all the packages straight. That’s where I came in—I was the point guard, the coxswain, the conductor. I was the one making sure we were working in unison, which—if I’m being perfectly honest—wasn’t much of a task by ‘38. We had it down.”
Talk of The Kid—Rudolph, that is—being groomed to one day join the team had raised some hackles among the team during the previous summertime, but the standoff and eventual stand-down by Santa over Rudolph’s participation in the Reindeer Games had left The Eight confident that that would be a discussion for the next offseason at the earliest. Needless to say, then, jaws dropped when Santa’s handlers led a skinny, shivering young Rudolph into the barn where The Eight mustered prior to launch.
“What the hell is he doing here?”, Cupid recalls Comet angrily bellowing.
“Change of plans,” Santa growled, chomping an unlit cigar. “This team has gotten complacent. Stale. Lazy, even! We’re not going to run that 19th-century playbook until the end of time, no matter how famous you eight think your names are.”
His voice dripped with contempt.
“He seemed relieved to be dropping the façade of pleasantries he’d been keeping up with us in recent years,” Cupid recalls. “Like it was our fault it had taken so long for his genetic-engineering plan to bear fruit, but now that it had, he could finally stick it to us. And then, he said it—it certainly wasn’t a kind request, and it was directed more at the eight of us than it was at the boy himself.”
“Rudolph, with your nose so bright, won’t you guide my sleigh tonight?
“If it had been up the others, we wouldn’t have even launched that night. Prancer was ready to scrap the whole mission, to go on strike right then and there. Comet suggested we drag the kid out back and beat him until he couldn’t fly. Dancer looked like she was thinking about slipping out the back door, and Blitzen was back at his locker right away, probably looking to see if he had any mushrooms left. To be honest, I couldn’t blame any of them. We shouldn’t have gone out that night.”
Cupid reached for his beer for the first time all evening, and took down half of it in a single slug.
“It’s my fault that we did. I’m a sentimentalist. Even after all of those years, I still believed very deeply in the magic of Christmas. Heck, I still do now. Even after all of this, even after everything that happened. I was mad, too, mind you—I didn’t want to have this unprepared little kid tagging along on our mission, let alone ‘leading it’, whatever that would mean—but I couldn’t let Christmas fail. I think Santa knew that. He was calling our bluff, and we folded. I’m the reason we folded.”
As Cupid explains it, he spent the next several hours in frantic conversation with the other seven reindeer, working to soothe inflamed egos and settle nerves, trying every argument he could muster to bring the team back together and save Christmas.
We’ll drag the kid along, it won’t matter.
He’ll be like an extra bag of toys to us.
We know this route by heart, we could do it blindfolded. What does it matter?
He doesn’t even fit into the rhyme structure of the poem, they’d have to write a whole new song, and they’re not going to write songs about one single reindeer.
This will all be forgotten soon.
What’s the worst that could happen?
“I actually said that,” Cupid laughs, smiling for the first time all evening. “‘What’s the worst that could happen?’ You really should never say that. It makes it too easy for it to turn into dramatic foreshadowing.”
Reluctantly, the team fell in line, reworking their usual two-by-two configuration to add the young Rudolph at the front of the lines.
“He was a [expletive] hood ornament,” Comet recalled.
Cupid is more measured in his word choice, but doesn’t dispute the fundamentals of that assessment. “The way I saw it, we could let the kid ride up front, but we’d be pushing him along the whole time. It’d be a joyride for him. We could do the route like we always did, get the presents down chimneys, and deal with the politics once we got back.”
“We were 20,000 feet over the North Sea when that son of a bitch in the sleigh called a right turn.”
Among the five surviving members of The Eight, the accounts of what happened that night conflict on some points, on who exactly did what, but their stories converge on a single basic narrative: after departing for their scheduled flight-plan, Santa Claus called an audible, rerouting them from a route that would normally begin deliveries in Scandinavia.
“It only made sense to start there; it was close to the Pole, and we’d work East to West among Western countries,” Prancer recalls. “It made absolutely no sense to start with Canada; our timetables would be totally reversed. We’d be racing the clock all night.”
“We’d been running this [expletive] route for a hundred [expletive] years and he decided to take the [expletive] scenic route,” snarls Comet. “Led us right into the [expletive] soup.”
“Did you know,” Dancer inquires calmly, ashing a cigarette from a long, sleek holder, “that the Grand Banks off Newfoundland is the foggiest place on Earth? You see, it’s the place where several currents collide—the cold Labrador Current comes in from the north, the warm Gulf Stream from the south, and it produces the thickest fog in the world. I didn’t know that before that night, of course, but…”
She pauses, more for dramatic effect than out of any hesitance to speak.
“I believe that he knew that.”
“I believe that Nicholas knew exactly what he was doing.”
The rest, as they say, is history. Stuck in a thick fog, the team of nine reindeer was forced to rely on Rudolph’s bioluminescent nose to direct them, and despite a harrowing, turbulent journey, they arrived over the Eastern Seaboard several hours later. Presents were delivered, and Christmas was saved.
(It is rarely acknowledged that, due to the hasty scrambling of routes, Christmas present deliveries continued through the afternoon of December 27th that year, but communications systems were poorer at the time, and North Pole PR was able to squash any mention of this in the media.)
The story of what happened over the North Atlantic that night was massaged, and rather than being recorded as an unwilling patsy in a manufactured crisis, Rudolph would be hailed as a hero. The following Christmas, May’s coloring book would set in motion a century of hagiography that would diminish the power of The Eight and elevate one reindeer above all.
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, as Gene Autry’s 1949 song memorably promised, went down in history.
There’s only one voice that’s been left out of this discussion.
“I didn’t ask for any of this. I only did what I was told to do, and then I did my best.”
He’s an octogenarian himself now, but Rudolph still looks like a kid relative to his former teammates; doe-eyed, a cherubic face, a slight frame never muscled and weathered by the kind of heavy labor his counterparts put in.
And then, of course, there’s that famous nose.
“You want to see it, don’t you?" he asks, bemused. “Everyone wants to see it.”
The nose doesn’t glow at all times, at least not anymore. When he was young, he couldn’t control it, and it would often flare brightly at inopportune times. With decades of practice, though, Rudolph can turn it on and off at will.
Decades beyond his last flight, and into an era of GPS tracking and powerful compact LEDs, it’s more of a party trick than a marketable skill.
It’s a damned good party trick, though.
He closes his eyes for a moment, and his breath shortens. His black nose reddens, then a slight glow wells inside of it, slowly rising to roughly the brightness of a lightbulb ringing a bathroom vanity.
“I could go much brighter when I was a kid,” he offers self-deprecatingly, “but you get the idea.”
He opens his eyes, and the luminescence slowly dims, the black returning to his nose.
It took months of calling to locate Rudolph; contrary to his famous image, the “most famous reindeer of all” shies away from the spotlight these days. His legacy is secure, his name, image and likeness eternally profitable. He lived a fast lifestyle for a few years after Foggy Night, basking in the novelty of youthful fame, but eventually tired of partying. He settled down, started a family; he’s sired several dozen calves, and his bloodline now carries through hundreds, if not thousands, of descendants. A small handful inherited the luminescent gene awkwardly inserted into his bloodline—some have worked to suppress it, shying away from the expectations that a famous father can bring, while others have embraced it. The current Rudolph is a great-grandson of the original, and though he doesn’t speak to his star kin more than once or twice a year, he’s proud to see the family business carry on.
He understands the resentments that still linger, though.
“I wouldn’t have liked the song if I were in their shoes, either. But that’s really between them and Gene Autry, now, isn’t it? Listen—I know it was ridiculous. The idea that one two-year-old reindeer could single-handedly save an operation that had been working for centuries… it never held up to serious scrutiny.”
His home is sleek and modern, a severe block of glass and steel cantilevered over a cliffside in a Norwegian fjord. He looks comfortable, wearing an expensive sweater as he lounges on a white couch the size of a school bus. He’s lived a good life.
“Nothing about Christmas holds up to scrutiny, though, does it?"
He stands, and strides over to the floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the fjord. Wisps of fog roll over the rocks below us, and I consider pointing out the irony, but think better of it.
“Moore’s poem made them all famous, and it didn’t make much sense either, now, did it? They were described as ‘tiny’ reindeer—I don’t think the public ever really examined that line much, did they?”
He doesn’t sound defensive, so much as he’s taking a sweeping arc to get to his point.
“Christmas—and I’m speaking on the commercial version of Christmas here, don’t sic the religious folks on me, that’s a whole different thing—Christmas is inherently ridiculous. People cut down trees, bring them indoors, and try desperately to keep them alive. Folks go door-to-door singing silly songs, people go out of their way to buy hideous sweaters, we stuff socks full of candy and hang them over fireplaces. Parents spent months lying to their children not out of malice but out of pure, unadulterated love. We stare headlong into the darkest nights of the year and try our hardest to shine a light so that others might feel just a little bit less lost.”
“It’s a ridiculous story.”
“But I still like it. Don’t you?”
This story appears in the December 21st print edition of The Action Cookbook Newsletter.
—Scott Hines (@actioncookbook)