The real reindeer behind the “Most famous reindeer of all”
With the holidays coming, I thought, let’s write an article about animals that we associate with the Christmas season. Hmmm, Partridges in pear trees? The antler-wearing, scrawny dog in “How the Grinch Stole Christmas”? Flying reindeer? Ok, well maybe just regular reindeer, not the flying, fantasy kind. Where did the flying part come from anyway?
Modern stories of flying reindeer may have evolved from the ancient Norse legend of Thor. Thor was the god of thunder, who flew through the sky in a chariot pulled by two magical goats. Linked to the northern part of the world, reindeer were once viewed as mysterious creatures, symbolic of good fortune and joy. So, perhaps, if magical goats can fly and pull chariots, it’s not a stretch to have stories about flying reindeer pulling a sleigh.
The first known written account of reindeer in association with Santa Claus occurred in 1821 when a New York printer published a booklet titled “A New Year’s Present.” Reindeer are then mentioned as driving Santa through the frosty night.
In 1823, the Troy Sentinel published the poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” commonly known as “The Night Before Christmas.” The poem features eight flying reindeer pulling Santa’s sleigh and, for the first time, they are identified by name: Before you read the next lines, see if you can recite the reindeer names:
More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And he whistled and shouted and called them by name;
“Now, Dasher! now, Dancer! now, Prancer and Vixen!
On, Comet! on, Cupid! on, Dunder and Blixem!
To the top of the porch, to the top of the wall!
Now, dash away, dash away, dash away all!”
No, that wasn’t a typo. Originally called Dunder and Blixem, Santa’s seventh and eighth reindeer are commonly known as Donner and Blitzen today.
In 1939, Robert L. May wrote “the most famous reindeer of all” as a Christmas coloring book for his employer, the department store Montgomery Ward. The company gave away the coloring books as holiday gifts to children to entice parents to shop. It was then that Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer began guiding Santa’s sleigh.
In 1948, May’s brother-in-law, Johnny Marks, penned the song “’Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer,” which became one of the biggest-selling Christmas songs of all time.
The real (non-flying) reindeer
As the name suggests, reindeer are a species of deer. They are the only deer species in which both the male and female can grow antlers.
Reindeer and caribou are actually the same species, Rangifer tarandus, however, they are not the same animal. In part, this is a difference of geography: reindeer live in northern Europe and Asia. Caribou live in North America, so we may be more familiar with caribou. Caribou are bigger, elk-like and have never been domesticated.
Reindeer are comparatively smaller in body size and thrive both as wild and domestic animals. Records show that they have been domesticated for over 2,000 years. Wild reindeer still roam parts of Greenland, Norway and Russia.
Reindeer and caribou populations are in trouble. Habitat loss, predation and climate change are all affecting the ability of these animals to persist in the wild. Without concerted efforts to protect them, these wide-ranging, disturbance-sensitive animals could disappear.
Last but not least, reindeer spend much of their lives in snow, so they’ve adapted to help them survive. Their hollow fur helps to trap heat. They have an abundance of tiny veins around their nose which circulate warm blood, heating up the air they breathe to help keep them from being so cold.
So they actually do (sort of) have red noses like Rudolph.
Amy Carotenuto, Director of Philanthropy & Activism