Where does reindeer games come from?
As the oft-told story goes, the character of Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer was introduced by writer Robert May in 1939 for books the department store Montgomery Ward gave to children during Christmas. May's brother-in-law, songwriter Johnny Marks, later composed music and lyrics for a song based on May's story of Rudolph, who is ostracized by Santa's other reindeer because of his red nose. The song includes the lyrics: "All of the other reindeer / Used to laugh and call him names / They never let poor Rudolph / Join in any reindeer games." The song was released in 1949, with a version by singer Gene Autry going #1 on the charts that Christmas and selling two-million copies just that year. The character and story have become part of popular Christmas culture and the song, in its many subsequent renditions, a holiday staple.
As early as the 1960s, lesson plans suggest Christmas-themed reindeer games children can play, referencing the song. These games, while allusive, are fun-spirited, whereas the phrase reindeer games took on a snarkier tone in mainstream culture as a term for the cruel or bullying actions popular in-groups used to exclude outsiders. The 1988 dark comedy Heathers notably features such a use of reindeer games when a snooty clique leader (Kim Walker) delivers a threat to an unruly follower (Winona Ryder) to change high schools: "Transfer to Washington. Transfer to Jefferson. No one at Westerburg is going to let you play their reindeer games."
Reindeer games also supplied the title of a 2000 thriller starring Ben Affleck and Charlize Theron. Set during Christmas, Reindeer Games is about a complex casino heist (the robbers dress up in Santa Claus suits) and the various manipulative "games," or deceptions, they end up having to play to pull it off. Reindeer games, here, is used ironically for Christmas-set scheming.
Who uses reindeer games?
Reindeer games is occasionally used in speech and writing as a colorful, allusive, and usually colloquial way of describing group activities that unfairly discriminate against participants. The phrase often has a sarcastic and defensive tone, writing off such activities as childish: "Go ahead and play your reindeer games!" or "If they're just going to be mean, leave them to their reindeer games."
In school settings or during Christmastime, reindeer games is often used as a pun for a clever name for Christmas-based festivities. The reference, though, can be more adult, too (e.g., So, whaddya say we head back to my place for some reindeer games?).
nobody wants to join my games on epicmafia after getting accused of cheating. this is just like rudolph the red nose reindeer. they wont let me play their reindeer games
@toeknives, March, 2018
So when liberals start telling us we should freak out and abandon a Republican who’s laying down the smack on Obama’s legacy because he used to indulge in his own reindeer games, well, that’s just not happening.
Kurt Schlichter, Townhall, March, 2018
Apparently the reindeer games are played in a domed stadium, lest Donner and Blitzen’s precious coats have to adjust to imperfect conditions. Here’s hoping there are also some camel-humped reindeer languishing up there, too, just in case the holiday ever happens during a drought. Because God forbid the popular caribou bring bottled water with them.
Michael Schaffer, The New Republic, December, 2013