Listen to Rudolph: A New Year Is Both a Comfort and a Fiction

If 2020 were a person, what would it look like? I imagine someone tired, ravaged, beaten down by illness and police brutality, and weary from trying to stay afloat in a sinking economy. We’ve personified 2020 in articles and memes and GIFs, speaking of it as though it were a living, breathing antagonist in our collective story. And this past New Year’s celebration was not so much about the birth of a new year as about the death of an old one that no one asked for.

I was thinking of the poor pallor and limping gait of 2020 as I watched the 1976 Rankin-Bass stop-motion movie “Rudolph’s Shiny New Year” over the holidays. The film highlighted something that 2021 will surely come to prove: the ways we mark time are arbitrary, ultimately a fantasy in which our memory of a year often only accounts for the extremes of our experience: the best and worst things that happened to us. Time is unwieldy and untameable, so much larger than the ways we define it, and it continues whether or not we mark its passage.

I grew up watching all the Rankin-Bass Christmas movies, with Heat Misers and Snow Misers and Burgermeister Meisterburgers, but “Rudolph’s Shiny New Year” always seemed the odd man (or, more accurately, odd reindeer) out. Unlike the others, which stuck to Christmas and its traditions, with stories of Santa and special holiday magic, “Rudolph’s Shiny New Year” focused on our celebration of passing time.

The follow-up to “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” set its protagonist on a new mission: After saving Christmas with his shiny schnoz-beacon, Rudolph must track down Happy, the baby new year, who has run away because people keep making fun of his Dumbo-esque ears. The aged Father Time tells Rudolph that if Happy isn’t found by midnight on New Year’s Eve, it will remain Dec. 31 forever.

Rudolph encounters various silly side characters along the way, and the most delightful part of the movie for me was always his jaunt among the Archipelago of Last Years, with each year, personified based on prominent events and attitudes, getting its own island where time is locked. (I now wonder if the plot was swiped from the writer’s table at “Doctor Who.”)

One Million B.C. is a cave man living among dinosaurs, and 1776 looks like Benjamin Franklin. We don’t get to see every island but learn that on 1492 island, people were too busy discovering things to help, and that 1965 was too noisy. Rudolph also mentions the island of 1893, the year of a major depression, but they have never heard of Happy.

It’s a cute joke, one I missed as a kid but that caught my attention now: You could imagine 2020 there, passed over by Rudolph because its inhabitants have also never heard of Happy. But the premise reveals its own holes. For one, the personifications are America- and white-centric. America was born in 1776, but it was also the year of a deadly hurricane in Guadeloupe and a war against Cherokee tribes. And the island descriptions are all deliberately myopic: 1893 was the year of a depression but it was also the year of the Belgian workers’ strike and the Chicago World’s Fair. In 1965, when civil rights protests and Beatlemania were in full swing, it was definitely a year of noise but also silences: the death of Winston Churchill, the assassination of Malcolm X, deaths of civilians and soldiers in Vietnam. And then the quiet face of Mars, photographed for the first time by Mariner 4, hanging like a red ornament, suspended in the silence of space.

But this is how we think of time: one adjective at a time, the best or the worst within the narrow confines of our own perspectives. Otherwise we’d go mad, accounting for every second of every day, every victory and trifle.

“Rudolph’s Shiny New Year” is a reminder, however, that there’s comfort in that, to think that our worst years also contain someone else’s best, that our best years are tempered with the worst, and that there’s a larger narrative always happening beyond the turn of a calendar page.

So we’ve kicked the old year out onto its island, and welcomed baby Happy 2021 hoping for the best. There is still a pandemic. There are still people sick and dying or unemployed. But on New Year’s Day I passed by children playing in the park and texted a friend about her exciting new job offer. I happily browsed new art to hang in my apartment, listened to music and watched a TikTok musical. Our celebration of the passage of 2020 is arbitrary, because there is more to come: the good and the bad and the everything in between.

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