When I was but a wee lad my folks had a dozen or so 78 rpm records and one of them was Gene Autry singing “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”. We’d play it over and over again, as Christmas drew closer. I loved the lead-in to the song when Gene mentioned each of Santa’s reindeer by name before introducing “…the most famous reindeer of all…” I hadn’t realized that Rudolph had only appeared ten years prior to Gene’s 1949 recording when Robert May’s booklet was published.
Talented songwriter Johnny Marks wrote “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and the singing cowboy Gene Autry recorded it in 1949. It is still one of the most famous versions of this classic Christmas song.
You know Dasher and Dancer and Prancer and Vixen Comet and Cupid and Donner and Blitzen But do you recall the most famous reindeer of all Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer had a very shiny noseAnd if you ever saw it, you would even say it glows All of the other reindeer used to laugh and call him names They never let poor Rudolph join in any reindeer games Then one foggy Christmas Eve Santa came to say ‘Rudolph with your nose so bright Won’t you guide my sleigh tonight?’ Then all the reindeer loved him as they shouted out with glee ‘Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer you’ll go down in history’
May, while working as an advertising copywriter for Montgomery Ward, was asked to write a cheery Christmas book for shoppers – something that the store could give away to its customers. He decided to make a deer the central character in his story because his four-year-old daughter Barbara loved the deer in the Chicago zoo. 2.4 million copies were distributed in 1939, and another 3.6 million copies were given away in 1946 following World War II. Early in 1947, Montgomery Ward gave the rights to May. Robert May’s brother-in-law, Johnny Marks, took the story and wrote a musical adaptation of it. Gene Autry recorded it in 1949 – and it hit the top of the charts in January 1950.
When did the original eight reindeer first appear in association with Santa Claus? In 1823, the poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (better known as “’Twas the Night Before Christmas”) was published. Included in the poem was this passage:
When what to my wondering eyes did appear,
But a miniature sleigh and eight tiny reindeer,
With a little old driver so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment he must be St. Nick.
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, Donder and Blitzen!"
Aside from the fact that the original names of Donder and Blixem were changed to Donner and Blitzen (in May’s book about Rudolph), we have come to know the names of Santa’s reindeer quite well.
Did reindeer always pull Santa’s sleigh? The answer is likely a ‘yes’, but Sinter Klaas rode a horse. A little historical tangent is required at this point.
The name Santa Claus evolved from the Dutch name Sinter Klaas, a shortened form of Sint Nikolaas (which is Dutch for Saint Nicholas). St. Nicholas was a monk who lived over 1,700 years ago in the region that is now modern-day Turkey. Known as the protector of children and sailors, this kind man gave away his wealth and travelled the countryside helping the poor and the sick. By the Renaissance, St. Nicholas was the most popular saint in Europe. Even after the Protestant Reformation, when the veneration of saints began to be discouraged, St. Nicholas maintained a positive reputation, especially in Holland. The Dutch brought the traditions of St. Nicholas with them when they came to America in the 18th century – and they became popular traditions at Christmas time.
Woodcut images of an Americanized Santa first appeared in 1804. In 1809, Washington Irving popularized the stories of St. Nick in his book “The History of New York”, stating that Santa rides “over the tops of the trees, in that self-same wagon wherein he brings his yearly presents to children”. What pulled this flying wagon? In 1821, William Gilley, a printer in New York, published a sixteen-page booklet written by an anonymous author who claimed that it was reindeer.
Deborah Whipp, in “The History of Santa’s Reindeer”, writes:
During an 1822 interview, New York's Troy Sentinel editor Orville L. Holley questioned Mr. Gilley regarding the booklet's author and the topic of reindeer. Though he did not identify the author, Mr. Gilley responded:
"Dear Sir, the idea of Santeclaus was not mine nor was the idea of a reindeer. The author of the tale but submitted the piece, with little added information. However, it should be noted that he did mention the reindeer in a subsequent correspondence. He stated that far in the north near the Arctic lands a series of animals exist, these hooven and antlered animals resemble the reindeer and are feared and honoured by those around, as you see he claims to have heard they could fly from his mother -- his mother being an Indian of the area”.
This last reference was likely to the Sámi people, commonly known as Laplanders to non-Europeans, who used domesticated reindeer to pull sleds and sleighs. Some, like author Andrew Eddy, claim that the Sámi shamen’s use of magic mushrooms to induce trances could have induced visions of flying reindeer – and that somehow those stories influenced the anonymous author of Gilley’s 1821 publication. The poem “Twas the night Before Christmas” followed closely in 1823.
What Are Reindeer?
Reindeer are a species of deer (Rangifer tarandus) that are well adapted to survival in the frigid northern climates of the earth, including Arctic tundra, sub-Arctic tundra, and boreal coniferous regions. Their circumpolar distribution spans the northern parts of North America and Eurasia – Alaska, Canada, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Finland, Russia and Mongolia. In North America, they are called caribou.
Caribou travel in large herds constantly in search of food. Most populations undertake seasonal migrations, which may reach distances of 5,000 km – the longest of any terrestrial mammal. Life in the north is tough, but these animals can cope.
Their characteristics make them well suited to life in the far north:
- Compact bodies with small ears & tails, reduces surface area commonly exposed to the cold
- Unique circulatory system with veins and arteries close together so that warm blood that is pumped away from the heart can warm the cooler blood in the veins
- Thick woolly coat in two layers traps insulating air to maintain warmth
- Trapped air gives caribou extra buoyancy when swimming during migrations
- Long legs are good for ploughing through deep snow and for swimming
- Strong, hardy and excellent runners (attaining speeds up to 80 kph), they can travel long distances and escape predators
- Long muzzles covered by dense hair warms incoming air and extracts moisture from exhaled air to conserve water
- Extraordinary sense of smell allows them to detect lichen as deep as 1.5 metres under the snow
- Specialized stomach has a complex digestive system that extracts every possible bit of nutrient from lichen and other foods
- Large, flat hooves act like snowshoes in winter
- Hard sharp-edged hooves enable them to break through snow and ice in search of food
- Tufts of hair between the hooves prevent snow from clogging
- Eyes change colour from winter to summer to adapt to the widely varying light levels
Their short, rounded ears and short, furry tails stand in contrast to their long, sweeping antlers. Different species have antlers of various shapes but generally curve backwards before turning forwards and often ending in a shovel-like shape. Caribou have the second-largest antlers in the deer family – exceeded only by those of moose. It is the only species of deer in which both males and females have antlers. The LiveScience website published an article entitled, “Surprising Truths About Santa’s Reindeer”, making the following interesting points to support the claim that Santa’s stable of reindeer must be all female:
“Male reindeer shed their antlers at the end of the mating season in early December. Females, however, keep their thinner antlers throughout the winter. If all the sightings are to be believed, then it is the gals tugging pudgy Santa and the goods through the winter sky. And this might be why Santa chose an all-female crew: Male reindeer carry as little as 5 percent body fat when Christmas rolls around, having lost much of their fatty stores during the mating season. Female reindeer, however, enter winter carrying about 50 percent body fat. This natural insulator, which can be a couple of inches thick on their rumps, keeps the reindeer toasty in temperatures as low as minus 45 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 43 degrees Celsius).”
What Species is Santa’s Reindeer?
MentalFloss.com claims that Santa’s reindeer “are most likely the R.t.platyrhynchus species from the Svalbard islands off of Norway” because ‘Twas the night Before Christmas’ describes them as being “eight tiny reindeer” – and this subspecies weighs about half as much as the average reindeer species and is at least 30 cm shorter.
Canadians might challenge that claim. Santa’s workshop is located at The North Pole. Under widely accepted international law, no country owns the North Pole or the region of the Arctic Ocean surrounding it, so Santa lives in an internationally neutral area. However, the Pole is located approximately 707 km north of Alert, Ellesmere Island in Canada – much closer than Norway. Sarah McPherson, writing in The Canadian Museum of Nature Blog on December 20, 2012, speculates that…
“the species of caribou (reindeer) most likely referred to in these stories is the Peary caribou (R.t.peary), given that they are the most northerly species. They are found throughout the Queen Elizabeth Islands, Prince of Wales Island, and Somerset Island—all close to the North Pole. However, this is just speculation as Santa could have gotten them from anywhere! Additionally, Naughton describes the Peary species’ colouration as ‘ghostly white in winter and grey-brown and white in summer’. In doing my research, many artists’ renderings of Santa’s helpers are just as she describes.”
Dangers to the Existence of Caribou
Habitat loss is a major factor contributing to the decline of caribou herds. Industrial activities including forestry and mining and the construction of pipelines and roads are key components. Global warming is another factor. Warmer temperatures have allowed moose and deer to move further north, followed by their predators (wolves, cougars, coyotes) – which places added pressure on caribou herds. Global warming has produced an increase in ice and hard snow crusts, which cover vegetation, making it harder to locate food. Sea ice, used as travel routes during migrations, is also melting. Many species are now on the endangered list, including the Peary caribou. Are those Santa’s reindeer?
The flip side of Gene Autry’s “Rudolph” record was “If It Doesn’t Snow On Christmas”. I loved that song and its query about how Santa would deliver all of his presents if it didn’t snow. The lyrics ask if it’ll be a train that’ll speed him on his way, or if it’ll be a bus or even a plane. That was 1949. Now, with global warming and the threat to the existence of caribou herds, we may have to update the song to “If There Are No More Reindeer by Christmas”.
If It Doesn’t Snow On Christmas
Santa works all day in his workshop
Caribou Pictures & Sound Slide Show - Gates of the Arctic National Park & Preserve
Dangers to the Existence of Caribou
Caribou – Canadian Encyclopaedia
Help Save the Real Reindeer – Video
Gene Autry Christmas Songs