Why does Rudolph have a red nose?
That was the question my daughter had for Mrs. Claus when we went to Georgia last week to celebrate Thanksgiving and begin the Christmas season. Unfortunately we made it to Mrs. Claus’ cabin too late the first day for her to get her question in. So the next day, my daughter made sure she was front and center. As soon as Mrs. Claus appeared, before she had so much as introduced herself, my daughter’s arm shot high in the air.
I was really proud of my daughter for not getting discouraged the first day her question wasn’t entertained and then going back the second day and making sure she got a seat where she couldn’t be missed. She made sure her question was heard.
“Why does Rudolph have a red nose?” Mrs. Claus repeated, “Well, I don’t know. That’s just the way God made him.”
I cringed as soon as I heard that non-answer, and the fallen expression on my daughter’s face clearly showed that Mrs. Claus’ answer was a colossal disappointment. My daughter thought she was going to learn something new and neat.
Instead, the answer Mrs. Claus gave was bad on so many levels that I can’t begin to cover them in this column. First, it was about as unimaginative as an answer can get. At the very least, Mrs. Claus could open up the question to the children in the audience and entertain several of their ideas. Second, it reflects a lazy theology. Apparently Mrs. Claus believes in God of the “gaps”, a God of what she doesn’t understand or want to take the time to think about. I like to give God more credit than that.
And third, it is an answer that immediately generates this response: “But HOW is his nose red?”
One member of our family suggested Rudolph’s nose is red because he has a cold. That is not a bad start, but it doesn’t explain the permanent redness and lack of runny nose and sneezing.
My first thoughts were about bioluminescence. Bioluminescence is also the answer most often proposed if you Google the question “Why does Rudolph have a red nose?” It’s not a bad answer on the surface. Many animals are luminescent, the firefly being the most common example, but there are many other beetles and dozens of sea creatures that exhibit luminescence. The click beetle is a beetle that actually has a red luminescence. The problem with this explanation is the genetics. To exhibit red luminescence Rudolph would need to express not only the gene for the luciferase enzyme but also all the other genes involved in generating the substrate, luciferin. One reindeer expressing all of those unique genes is highly improbable.
It’s also possible that Rudolph’s nose is autofluorescent. There are proteins in nature that fluoresce when they are folded in a particular way. The green fluorescent protein is the most prominent example, but simple changes in the DNA sequence of the single gene can produce a red-fluorescent protein. So, a very good explanation is that Rudolph is expressing a normally silent gene for a red fluorescent protein.
But, it might even be simpler than that. Rudolph might suffer from mild allergies, and when his nose honks and glows really brightly, we are seeing an extreme stress response on top of the allergies. The allergies mean that his nose is always engorged with freshly oxygenated blood (hence the red). The glowing and honking occurs when Rudolph is stressed or excited, much like a person’s neck or face turning red when that person is nervous. When Rudolph is nervous or excited (like on Christmas Eve) his body temperature raises, and his nose gets all flushed and extra red. The nasal membranes swell, and he honks. That is a good explanation and one that most children can relate to.
See—three plausible answers, with just a little thought and creativity, and the magic is recaptured. Even with the lousy answer to the question from Mrs. Claus, my daughter was still captivated by Mrs. Claus’ storytelling, sitting attentively and participating in the story telling, and for that she’s on the nice list.
© 2011 Michele Arduengo. All rights reserved.