Forgive me if I sound nervous. I'm not really used to this. Guys where I come from didn't "share feelings." Heh heh. You know what I'm saying? That whole North Pole scene, it wasn't what you'd call a touchy-feely environment. Consider my dad, Donner. You may recall from my movie that the first thing he did when he saw my red nose was he put a ball of mud over it. Like he was saying, "Whoa, son. You're a weirdo." Like he was saying, "I'm disappointed in you because you are such a weirdo." But he would never just come out and say that. No, he covered my nose with mud, denying me, but also denying himself, I guess you could say. It's funny to think about now. Aw, Dad, if you're up there, say hi to Dasher and The Blitzer for me, okay?

A lot of people I meet at malls and whatnot nowadays don't remember the part about my dad putting mud on my nose. But, it's all there in my movie. Yeah. A lot of people will say, "You mean that 1964 Rankin/Bass seasonal classic is really the true story of your life?" Heck yeah, it is! I not only starred in the darn thing, I had creative control over the script, which looking back was pretty dag-blasted remarkable. Well, all right--there was a little problem with the ending, which they did change a little, which I will tell you about in a minute. But, what can I say? Hollywood was a lot different back then. But Hollywood was good to me. I have no bitterness.

I live in Florida now. It's what they call an "assisted living facility." I got folks who come in here and feed me and give me a bath. How can you complain? Sometimes I'll just look up to Heaven and I'll say, "Clarice, I am not complaining! I am happy, sweetie!" Then I'll tell her I miss her, because it's the truth. Oh yeah, that was Clarice playing herself in the movie. I insisted on that. Prettiest gal in the universe; no one could argue. We were married 57 years. She died two years ago, right there in our home in Miami. Hardest day of my life. Made me angry at God, to tell you the truth. I said some real mean things to Him, which I do regret. Seriously, I do.

Oh, well, let me clear this up. A lot of people ask me, since I was (and am) so close to Santa, they'll say, don't I have some kind of hot line to God? Heh heh. I understand the confusion. Santa/God. You got 'em both coming at you at Christmas. Well, baby God. But what the heck do I know? I don't know God personally, I mean, not to sit down and have lunch with, and I'm 99.9 percent sure Santa doesn't either. No, he doesn't. He definitely would have told me if he did. As to the bigger question, you know, how Santa does it, how he gets to all those houses on Christmas Eve--if I've been asked that once I've been asked it a thousand times. So let me just tell you what I told the lady at the Monroeville Mall in Pittsburgh last week. I said, "Ma'am, I'm Rudolph. I've got a red nose. It glows. That's as far as I can go."

The mall appearances, they're not what they used to be, what with my health. Plus it was different when Clarice was alive. We had a heck of a time, just the two of us, touring in that RV. Aw, Clarice. She was the first person to accept me for who I was. Maybe that sounds corny, I don't know. But, well, you try walking around with a red light bulb for a nose. Okay? I'm going to tell you something I usually don't tell people: There are lots of times I think about putting a ball of mud on my nose. Oh, lots of times. But that's, you know, something I try not to dwell on.

Hey, we're supposed to be talking about Christmas! I'm Rudolph! You want to know what I think the holiday season is really all about! Well, first of all, I want to thank you for just coming out and asking me. I get letters all the time from smarties trying to deconstruct my movie--you know, they'll get all worked up about the cultural significance or whatnot, you know, the gender issues I am addressing by the fact that my mom is never referred to as anything except "Mrs. Donner" (I never heard anybody call her anything different!), and then I get these screwballs questioning the political symbolism inherent in my use of snow. What do they want? It's the North Pole.

What can I say. People are so different now. But you know what gets me? People are still the same, too. Sometimes I think America hasn't changed at all since I first immigrated here in 1939. (A lot of you geezers may remember that my story was totally unknown until that Montgomery Ward copywriter came out with it in a book used as a promotional piece during the holiday season. Yeah, this is an actual fact you can look up on the Internet.) Don't get me wrong; I think society today is pretty darn wacky, but in so many ways it just reminds me of the old days up north. Look at what we had up there. We had a bunch of contented little elves who did their work and got a decent wage for it. We had an Abominable Snowman scaring the pants off everybody. And we had an Island of Misfit Toys getting more and more crowded every day. Turns out, a lot of us felt drawn to that island. Oh yeah, we did. Who doesn't know that one? Especially at Christmas. Who

really feels they belong? Who can possibly live up to all those expectations of happiness?

Misfits. The need to belong. Oh, that one can get ya where it hurts. No, I'm serious. It can turn you into an Abominable Snowman if you don't get a grip. Sure it can. Look at the monsters of today. Same darn issue. I'm saying to you: What is the urge to control the world if not the ultimate expression of the human need to belong?

Oh, heck. What do I know? You get old enough, you rattle on.

Me and Hermey were just talking about that. Remember Hermey? Aw, jeez. Why does everyone forget Hermey? He was one of the main characters in my movie. He was the elf who didn't want to be an elf. He wanted to be a dentist. Now, Hermey and I, as you may recall, we begged to stay on the Island of Misfit Toys along with that jack-in-the-box tragically named Charlie. But no. The island was only for toys, we were told. Now, how do you think that made us feel? See, this is not something we had time to go into in the movie. But to be rejected by the misfits? Oh, Hermey and I had a heck of a time swallowing that one. So in a way we were misfit misfits, together.

It was, of course, the togetherness that changed everything. The more you surround yourself with others who feel they don't belong, the more you belong to something. Isn't that beautiful? It really is. In fact, this is the very thing Clarice and Burl and I were arguing to the movie producers. You know, let the whole story be told. Why change the ending?

Yeah, Burl. Yeah, a lot of people ask me what it was like working with Burl Ives. A heck of an actor. Generous. Very professional. We had a close relationship. He would say to me, "Rudy, if you were my son, I would have never put mud on your nose." I appreciated that. I really did.

But, the end of my movie. Okay, in the film I fly off, leading the other reindeer, all of us pulling Santa through that horrible snowstorm with the aid of my bright red nose, and then Santa makes a pit stop at the Island of Misfit Toys and rescues the toys, distributing them among children. Now, all of this is technically true--Santa did do that. But there was more. Because the other thing Santa did was, he opened the borders of the Island of Misfit Toys, opened them to allow folks to come and go as they please. "Ho, ho, ho. We are all misfits!" Santa said. Those were his exact words. "Let us never feel we need to deny our misfittedness!" he said, and then he turned to me and whispered, "Is that a word?" I told him don't worry about it. He said, "If we remember, especially at Christmas, that belonging to something larger than ourselves is one of the most basic of needs, perhaps we won't punish ourselves when we feel that need spring up so urgently and so violently within us! Perhaps we will learn that feeling like a misfit is, simply, the feeling of being alive, that it is something we share with every living thing. So in that way, we belong."

"Too preachy," that's what the Hollywood producers said. Aw, jeez. What's the matter with those people? Santa's speech even had the Abominable Snowman weeping in his milk.

Oh, we argued. And Clarice, God bless her, she fought hardest. I said, sweetie, it's Hollywood. They need the big finish, the flying scene, the red nose in the storm. I mean, I got over it. But Clarice, she never really did. It's half the reason we moved to Florida in the first place. She says to me, "If there is no home for truth in Hollywood, there is no home for me there either." Bless her heart.

I don't know; maybe I would have made more of a career for myself if we had stayed. But--how many roles really are out there for a reindeer with a red nose? Probably not that many. So I have no bitterness. No, I do not. Every Christmas I get work. Oh, my phone is already ringing off the hook. And it's strange, you know, it's when the holidays start getting near that I get all those old feelings back. I'll say to myself, I just want to hide. I'll look around and everyone else seems so . . . normal. Everyone seems so happy. And I'll say to myself, why did I have to be born a weirdo?

Sometimes I'll call Santa. I'll say, "I know you're busy. I just wanted to say hi." And he'll give me a little "Ho ho ho," and then he'll start talking about his weight problem again. And I'll say, "Santa, you are so much more than a man with a weight problem." And he'll say, "Rudolph, you are so much more than a reindeer with a huge red nose."

It's funny the way we have to remind each other over and over again. But I guess that's what friends are for. Hermey, by the way, he finally sold his dentistry practice, and do you know, now that he's retired, he's taken up toy making? It just goes to show you.

Well, I gotta go. They're bringing up my tray. It's probably going to have more of that stinky pea soup. Heh heh. But I won't complain. What's the use of complaining? That's just me. I'm Rudolph. I have a red nose. I just try to be happy, you know, with what I have.

Jeanne Marie Laskas writes the Significant Others column for the Magazine.