Storytelling & Community: Rudolf the green nosed reindeer

Our ward Christmas program was essentially a talent show. We had refreshments, of course, and a tree and Santa showed up at the end, but mostly, we all performed for each other. I’ve always thought that much of James Arrington’s comic genius comes from this insight: Mormons are essentially performers. And you see it in his one man Farley Family plays—the Farleys love to perform, and they’re also pretty bad at it. Our ward party featured as many performers as the Farley Family Christmas, except, honestly, we were all pretty good.

For the Christmas show, we heard Silent Night performed on hammered dulcimer, Silver Bells on harp, Jingle Bells on accordion, a brass trio Christmas medley, and many, many piano duets. My wife and daughter’s duet was Coventry Carol and Pot a Pan, and was wonderful. They were all wonderful. We saw a teenage ventriloquist/puppeteer singing The Little Drummer Boy in the voices of her puppets, including three cats, two dogs, a walrus and a ferret. One of our more outgoing ward members served as MC, and between acts told many many jokes, all of them clean, and all of them terrible.

For my part, I was asked to tell a story to the children. The kids were getting restless when I got up—I think they’d heard just about as many piano duets as they were up for. So I sat in a big chair, and gathered them around my feet, and said I was going to tell them the story of Rudolf, the green-nosed reindeer. A stunned silence, and then the kids started shouting, “no, no, Rudolf has a red nose, you got it wrong!”

That was, of course, the point, and we had a lot of fun with it. I’d say “so Rudolf had a wicked stepmother, and she’d look in the magic mirror and say ‘mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s got the reddest nose of all?” And the kids, utterly outraged, would shout “no, no! There’s no mirror. He doesn’t have a wicked stepmother!” I’d apologize, and fix it, only to run the story off the tracks again almost immediately, veering off into Snow White, Cinderella, the Billy Goats Gruff, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, plus a little Tooth Fairy and Easter Bunny, for variety. And every time the story would take a narrative left turn, the kids would jump up and down and shout and correct me. They were great; they really got into it, and I think their sense of outrage was genuine; they were five and six and seven, and they got so frustrated. What was wrong with me? Didn’t I know that Rudolf didn’t put on a red cape and run through the woods to his grandmother’s house? Where did I get off, talking about porridge—too hot, too cold, just right? Porridge, seriously? This was Rudolf: there’s no porridge. When I finally finished, one six year old stopped by my chair and asked, “did you do that on purpose? Or are you really that stupid?” I assured him I was really that stupid.

It’s been weeks, and still, in Church, kids come up to me and say, man, do I not know how to tell a story. And my response is to hang my head ruefully and admit that it’s true—I’m a very bad storyteller. And the kids walk away, sort of strutting: ‘I’m a better storyteller than him and he’s a grownup.’ It happened this last Sunday. I went into the men’s room, and this little kid was in there; he’d washed his hands, and he was trying to reach the paper from the paper dispenser. He stood right underneath the dispenser and kept jumping as high as he could, not quite able to reach it. I pulled off the paper and handed it to him. He looked at me, and said ‘Thanks, bad story man.” So that’s my rep.

But I also look at my ward members differently. I see one sister and I think, ‘I never knew you played hammered dulcimer. That’s so awesome.’ Or I’ll see a mother and her ten year old son, and I’ll remember the sweet duet they played on the piano—the Mom took all the tough parts, but the combined sound was really glorious. And the ventriloquist girl—geez, she’s like sixteen, but massively talented; she’s going to make something of herself. And our home teacher, it turns out, plays the trombone. I never knew that about him, and it changes how I think of him. And our bishop’s wife—I had no idea she played the accordion. How awesome is that?

We revealed something of ourselves that night, and we’re closer as a result. And that’s the way the arts always work. I had a student this past semester who wrote a wonderful play, but a very personal play. At first, she didn’t want to share it with the class. Then she didn’t want to share it with her family. Now she wants to market it nationally—she’s asking about movie rights.

It’s also possible that some people might have seen our Christmas party as ‘inappropriate,’ as ‘offensive.’ We can do that too, close ourselves off from sharing our lives with our brothers and sisters, choose to judge instead of grow, or, you know, just bask. Me, I’d rather bask. We have a harpist in our ward. We have an accordionist. We have a ventriloquist. And a guy who tells really bad jokes, and a guy who gets comic mileage from bungling stories. And twenty people in our ward forming ten piano duets. And we have a woman whose parents were trapeze artists and we have immigrants from Norway, from Vietnam, from South Africa and Tonga and Venezuala. We’re a tapestry of great stories, united by testimony and love. And the day after the Christmas party, there’s a family whose father plays the ukulele and whose Mom sings her testimony instead of speaking it, and their house burned down and they lost everything. And everyone in the ward pitched in, and they’re fine, no one was hurt, and they’re going to be fine. And it turns out that all that music, all those performances add up to something else too. Rudolf, the green nosed reindeer found refuge with seven dwarfs, and the huntsman killed the wolf and saved the grandmother, and the Easter bunny gave kids quarters for their teeth, and the Grinch’s heart grew, and the Whos got their Christmas back. And Rudolf led the sleigh through the fog. And we all lived happily ever after. Happily. Ever. After.

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11 Responses to Storytelling & Community: Rudolf the green nosed reindeer

  1. Darlene says:

    Thanks, Eric.

    I love ward talent shows. It’s so nice when people feel free to show their talents instead of feeling like they have to hide them or they will appear full of pride. Somehow we’ve picked up a virus in our culture that makes us unable to acknowledge our gifts sometimes. You can see it when the set-apart pianist is sick and no one will ‘fess up to substitute for her because they don’t "really" play the piano . . .

    But, really, it’s awkward. My talent is teaching. I’m a dang good relief society teacher. And I’ve trained myself to admit it (well, not quite that directly) when the bishopric visits me when I’m new in the ward. They ask, "So, what callings have you had in the past?" And I say, "Let’s skip all that and I’ll just tell you my favorite calling." It feels a little weird to be so bold about it, but guess what? I’ve been given my favorite calling in every ward I’ve been in. So there!

    Can you imagine what would happen if people, upon moving into the ward, would contact the bishop and say, "I love scouting," or "I can direct a choir," or "I’m good at nursery"? Talents that have to do with the arts are sometimes easier to admit to than other talents.

  2. EricS says:

    Thanks, Darlene. I think the reason this worked so well is that the woman who organized it is someone everyone loves and trusts, so when she asked Annette if she and Lexie could pull together a piano duet, they both said yes. You’re right, though, artistic talents are easier to admit to.

  3. Ed Snow says:

    Great stories bad story man.

  4. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    I’ve read some great posts here, Eric, but for some darn reason, this is the one that brought tears to my eyes and literally left my heart warmed. (Is that the Spirit?) Thanks for giving my day a wonderful beginning.

  5. Mark B says:

    Bad Story Man. That is awesome. That’s a whole children’s book series right there. And if not that, it is at the very least, a terrific nickname to be given by a kid too short to reach the paper towels.

  6. I’ve been getting my daughter to practice reading by replacing random words in her books with the word "piggy" when I read aloud. She tells me that’s crazy, it doesn’t say piggy there, and I’ll point to the word and say, "Yes it does! C-A-R-R-O-T. That spells piggy." And then she’ll look at the word, and tell me the sounds the letters make, and tell me I’m crazy, and have worked her way through a word she’d otherwise have given up on.
    We actually learned the alphabet song about the same way. She didn’t care if she skipped half the alphabet at first, but as soon as I started singing abcxefq, she became more committed to helping me get the song right.
    On the other hand, I sometimes make up words instead of reading to hurry storytime along when she picks books with too much text per page late at night. She can usually tell when I’m making up words, but is more likely to ask me to start making them up when I’m reading the real text than she is to ask me to switch to the real text when I’m making parallel stories up.
    Hmmm….
    I wonder about the implications for storytelling in general from all this…

  7. Kathleen Dalton-Woodbury says:

    James, one of the basic concepts in the online writing workshops that I moderate is that you learn more from giving feedback on others’ stories than you do from receiving feedback on your own. It’s based on the idea that the best way to learn something is to teach it to someone else.

    Your daughter seems to be learning to read by "teaching" you, and I think you are a genius for coming up with that approach. Thanks for sharing.

  8. Boyd Petersen says:

    Eric, you can tell me bad stories all you want. Great stuff!

  9. What a great story! Thanks for sharing. This year we had a Christmas breakfast with music provided by ward members. I never knew the bishop’s wife played the accordion. A few people in my ward think we should only do service projects, but I feel events like these draw members closer. Our chili cook-off and pie-eating contest in the summer was every bit as fun.

  10. EricS says:

    Rachel,
    Your bishop’s wife plays accordion too? That’s amazing!

  11. And here I thought that my dad was the only one who fractured stories!
    But then again, I found it pretty funny when I pulled the same thing on my siblings by reading them a story about the Little Fishstick instead of The Little Mermaid.

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