Replicas of the residents of the mythical Island of the Misfit Toys have graced a windowsill my home office for more than a decade. This year I feel especially aware of what they represent.
I discovered the tiny statues shortly after moving to Iowa, shortly after I admitted to myself that I’d never felt more out of sync with the world around me.
Readers who aren’t familiar with the Misfit Toys should click over to YouTube and search for clips from the 1964 stop motion holiday classic “Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” Since the hourlong special has been replayed during the holiday season each year since that time (with one major change, which we’ll get to in a minute), the film could very well be on your television this Christmas Day. Look for it somewhere between George Bailey’s “wonderful” suicide contemplations and the Midwestern boy who shoots his eye out. Happy morbid Christmas, y’all.
In the NBC special and contrary to research that suggests Santa’s sleigh is pulled by female deer, Rudolf is born the son of sleigh-puller Donner, only to experience ridicule for his bright red nose. Although his father attempts to hide the nose, the scheme is foiled and Rudolf is ejected from the Reindeer Games, the training ground where youngsters learn to fly.
Rudolf flees the village and connects with Hermey, an elf forced out of his job because of his interest in dentistry. In true “Hero’s Journey” style, Rudolf begins a process of adventure that ultimately helps him discover his inner worth.
Part of the journey takes place on the Island of the Misfit Toys, which is inhabited by my office mates and other toys with notable imperfections. The land, for instance, is governed by King Moonracer, a winged lion. Other island residents on my sill are misnamed Charlie-in-the-Box, depressed Dolly for Sue, pink polka dot elephant and square-wheeled train.
The show, the nation’s longest-running holiday special, has developed a cultlike following, but I don’t count myself as a member. Like most adults, I remember spreading out on a floor palette and watching the show when I was younger. Those moments were enjoyable, but fell short of life altering.
A few winters after our family moved to Iowa I was grappling with the decision to live so far away from everything I found familiar, trying to find my place within a new culture. Another extremely docile Christmas season had passed without contact with my rowdy extended family, and I was feeling exquisitely lonely.
I went to a local store — I don’t remember which one — and stared grumpily at a clearance rack of holiday merchandise. The misfit toys stared back at me, and something clicked.
To this day I don’t know what the figures represented. Maybe they were a little piece of home or part of some vague childhood memory. Regardless, I immediately scooped them up and gave them their current place of honor on the windowsill. Whenever I sit at my desk and write, as I’m doing now, the misfits hold court.
Sometime later, while searching the internet for the Rudolf video, I learned that the misfit toys were not originally rescued from the island. In the 1964 version, Rudolf promises to tell Santa about the misfits. And Santa, in turn, promises to do something about it. But there is no visual proof anything was done. Script writers evidentially felt a promise from Santa was enough.
Young viewers disagreed, and flooded the NBC studios with letters voicing their displeasure. As a result, when the special aired the following year, a new scene was added. With Rudolf leading the sleigh, Santa lands on the island to gather the misfits and redistribute them to new homes. The misfits presumably spent the rest of their days being appreciated and loved, despite their flaws.
I still experience moments of homesickness, especially during the holidays when there is so much focus on the friends and family I’m fortunate to see once or twice each year. Most of the time the misfits see me through the melancholy. Each one is a reminder of how Iowa is my new home, and the work I’ve done to both become a part of the community and better it.
Throughout the year, however, I often look at the misfits and think about their broader message.
The figures represent those children back in 1964 who couldn’t abide by a semi-happy ending. It wasn’t enough for Rudolf to lead the sleigh, for only one “misfit” to welcomed back into society.
Those children understood that talk and promises weren’t enough, even when offered by the Jolly Old Elf. And with that understanding, they stood for what was right.
Their actions become even more remarkable when you consider they took place well before the viral information age. They used stamped letters to air their grievances, likely never knowing if they were the only one speaking out.
That level of tenacity and dedication, of being willing to stand alone against injustice large and small, is a holiday lesson we can use throughout the year.
This column by Lynda Waddington originally published in The Gazette on December 25, 2016. Photo credit: Lynda Waddington/The Gazette