The natural habitat of the reindeer, or Arctic deer, spans the north-ernmost reaches of RUSSIA, Siberia, and the Scandinavian countries. Reindeer also roam across Canada, where they are known as caribou. Reindeer differ from other deer not only in their capacity to withstand cold, but also in the fact that both male and female animals grow antlers. Until the twentieth century an indigenous people of northern Scandinavia called the Sami made their living primarily as reindeer herders. These reindeer facts, however, cannot by themselves explain how these unfamiliar animals were drafted into contemporary American Christmas lore.
The idea that SANTA CLAUS drives a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer is usually credited to one man’s flight of fancy. In 1822 Clement C. Moore (1779-1863), a classics professor at General Theological Seminary, wrote a poem for children entitled “A Visit from St. Nicholas.”
This poem, officially published in 1844, did much to establish the legend and lore of Santa Claus in the United States (see also NORTH POLE). In it Moore assigns eight flying reindeer the task of pulling Santa’s toy-laden sleigh. Moreover, he gave these animals names: Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donder, and Blitzen. Moore encoded his own private joke in these last two names. Donder means “thunder” in Dutch, and Blitzen means “lightning” in German.
How did Moore come up with this unusual reindeer imagery? Certainly ST. NICHOLAS, who might be considered Santa’s European predecessor, never resorted to such an unusual mode of conveyance (see also ST. NICHOLAS’S DAY). No definitive answer can be given to this question, although researchers have made a number of speculations. One writer points out that the year before Moore wrote “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” one William Gilley published a poem that depicts “santeclause” driving a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer. Moore may have read this poem and simply borrowed the idea from this little-known work. Others have suggested that Moore was inspired by an image from old Norse mythology in which Thor, the thunder god, rides a flying chariot pulled by the magical goats, Gnasher and Cracker. It may also be that Moore paired Santa with the exotic reindeer in order to suggest that he came from a remote land in the far northern reaches of the world.
RUDOLPH THE RED-NOSED REINDEER
In the early twentieth century an ordinary department store worker added a new reindeer to Santa’s team. Robert L. May, an employee at Montgomery Ward, wrote a poem entitled “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” in 1939. The store printed the poem and distributed it to children as a sales gimmick.
Written to appeal to children, the poem tells the story of a young reindeer who was rejected by his playmates for being different. The rejected youth, named Rudolph, had a large, shiny, red nose while all the other reindeers had small black noses. One very misty Christmas Eve, however, Santa discovers that the shiny red nose gives off enough light to help him sail safely through the murky night skies. Once the other reindeer realize Rudolph’s nose is a valuable asset they befriend the once lonely youngster.
Almost two and one-half million copies of the poem were sent home with shoppers in 1939, and more than three and one-half million in 1946, when Montgomery Ward reprinted May’s work. The store then released the copyright on the poem back to the author, who published it in a book for children.
In 1949 a friend of May’s named Johnny Marks composed a song based on the story told in the poem. In its first year on the market Rudolph fans bought two million copies of the song. Entitled, like the poem, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” it remains a popular, contemporary Christmas tune, which has now been recorded hundreds of times. In the decades following publication of the poem and the song, Rudolph’s fame continued to spread. His story has been told in 25 different languages, and has even been made into a network television special. In addition, hundreds of Christmas knick-knacks now bear his image.