The VHS cover art for Nestor (1977)
Nestor: The Long-Eared Christmas Donkey is not a film; nor does it fit into any of the genres that I normally discuss on this site. Even more unsettling for some, I’m sure, is that it’s one of the single most overtly Christian holiday specials to have ever been devised by Rankin-Bass Productions (i.e., the creators of the Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer puppetoon from 1964, starring Burl Ives). However, for reasons I shall explain below, Nestor is my very favorite thing to watch at Yuletide (even more so than 1988’s Scrooged, 1988’s Ernest Saves Christmas or 1989’s National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, all of which are required family viewing in my household at Christmas).
This 20-something minute TV special concerns a donkey named Nestor (naturally), who is the equine equivalent to Rudolph. He was born with a pair of ridiculously long ears, over which he habitually trips and stumbles. Nestor lives with his mother in a barn somewhere in Northern Europe, and all the other animals make fun of him for his ears (especially his fellow donkeys). Hell, even the Roman army rejects him, for when a company of sentries barges into the barn to commandeer every available donkey, they bust Nestor’s owner’s chops for trying to sell the little guy to them. This really pisses the owner off, inciting him to abuse poor Nestor and throw him out into the cold. Thankfully, Nestor’s mother breaks free to find her son and protect him in all that snow; but when Nestor wakes up the next morning, he’s horrified to find his loving mother dead.
(Come to think of it, this is really much darker and more depressing than anything in the story of Rudolph. Ol’ Rudy had it pretty easy compared to poor Nestor.)
Anyway, Nestor walks around aimlessly for a while after that; but then he’s found by a cherub named Tilly, who tells the donkey that he must travel to a faroff land. Nestor agrees to do so, and when he reaches his destination, he’s discovered by a man and his pregnant wife. They are in need of a good donkey for the woman to ride as they travel, and something about Nestor just makes them really like him. Then, the three of them get caught in an awful sandstorm out in a desert somewhere, and all seems lost. But Nestor hears his mother’s voice guiding him to safety, and he protects the woman on his back with his gigantic ears. Soon, Nestor leads his humans to a manger, where the woman—Mary—safely gives birth to her son, Jesus Christ. So it is that Nestor becomes a hero and is memorialized in every Nativity display that’s ever seen at Christmas (though, as the donkey who’s narrating this story helpfully explains, no one ever gets Nestor’s ears right).
The Christian basis for this story should be obvious, and I can see how it would be perfect viewing for children in Christian families. Yet I appreciate the fact that for all its depiction of Joseph and Mary on their way to the manger, Nestor isn’t really that preachy. Though this is undoubtedly the result of Christian privilege, Nestor assumes that everyone watching it already knows who Jesus is; it doesn’t waste any of its time (or ours) explaining why Nestor should help this particular family. While that might be a bad thing for people who aren’t aware of the Christ story (though it’s hard to imagine anyone fitting that description here in the United States), I enjoy it because I feel this prevents Nestor from insulting its audience too much. And as someone who’s familiar with stories of other Savior Gods having miraculous births, I think this aspect of Nestor actually leaves it open for interpretation a little. It’s quite clear that this is about the birth of Jesus, but little Nestor could just as easily be attending the birth of Mithras…which brings me to the main reason that I enjoy this TV special.
Warning: This little TV special is quite a tear-jerker. Proceed with caution.
Nestor: The Long-Eared Christmas Donkey can also be read as having a powerful Typhonian message. The most obvious thing is that Nestor is a member of Equus africanus asinus, which is sacred to Seth-Typhon. Then there’s the fact that even among his own species, Nestor is a social outcast. Let’s not forget that the cause for his mistreatment is later revealed to be quite useful (as with Rudolph’s shiny red nose). And most telling of all, Nestor becomes a hero by making it possible for an unborn God to be born. The parallels to Great Seth are obvious: He too is often a donkey (or a man with a donkey’s head); He too is also an outcast; He too learns to use His divergent qualities for heroic ends; and He too rescues an unborn God (though Seth does this every single day, not just at Christmas!). Given the connections between Seth, Yahweh and Christ that are suggested by the Greek magical papyri and the Alexamenos graffito, it’s very challenging for me not to view Nestor as a tale about a little avatar of Seth who is chosen to facilitate the birth of Jesus. Even when the angel Tilly indicates that she has been sent to guide little Nestor at her God’s request, it’s only implicitly hinted that her God is actually Yahweh (which is no doubt a result of the Christian privilege I mentioned above). For all we really know, Tilly could actually be from Seth’s kingdom in the Big Dipper and not from Yahweh’s heaven at all!
My idea of how things went behind the scenes!
Sure, I realize some people will find this interpretation of an obviously Christian children’s show quite strange (especially when it comes to evangelicals and to companions of Seth who tread the left-hand path). But I stand by everything I’ve just said; Nestor: The Long-Eared Christmas Donkey is excellent winter holiday viewing for little Typhonian foals as much as it is for little Christian lambs. Not only is it Typhonian simply for having a donkey as its protagonist; it also provides an excellent context for understanding how our God can relate to the God of the dominant culture by which we are surrounded. If you’re interested in seeing Nestor, it’s available as a bonus feature on the DVD for Rankin-Bass’ The Year Without a Santa Claus (1974).
Happy Holidays, everyone!