Dashing Through The Snow: How Christmas Got Its Reindeer
Reindeer, those weather-hardy creatures of the arctic and sub-arctic lands, are known for their strength, their ability to cope with sub-freezing temperatures, and for bearing magnificent antlers each year. What they are not known for is having any ability to fly, and search as you might, you won’t find one red nose between them. So how did reindeer get associated with Christmas?
Most of us now accept that our current Christian Christmas celebrations are largely, if not totally based on pagan, and other non-Christian, religious rites and symbols. But there is such a hodge-podge of traditions entangled that figuring out how our current festival traditions evolved is almost impossible. We can at best base the answer on conjecture.
Take a look at the reindeer (and Santa, for you can’t think of one without the other). What has created that myth? Well, we can find some similarities with the Druids, Celts, Anglo-Saxon and Norse beliefs and symbols of the day. The Celts had a god Cernunnos (or Herne, ‘the horned one’) that bore the antlers of a deer and personified the male life force of animals and nature. The Druids (or possibly the Norseman depending on what you read) had twin gods, the Oak King and the Holly King. The Oak King oversaw the summer and the Holly King, the winter. The Holly King was dressed in leaves and berries and symbolised withdrawal and rest after the fertile spring and summer had ended and before the next cycle began. Together, they were represented as the Horned God who was depicted with antlers growing from his head.
The Norse gods, Odin and Thor are also possible roots for today’s Santa and Reindeer. Odin was revered by the Vikings who described how Odin led a great hunting party through the sky at Yule time riding on his eight-legged horse, Sleipner. Thor, the God of Thunder, a cheerful god, was thought to wear red and have a long white beard. He was also depicted as riding a chariot drawn by two white goats.
Though we can’t be certain about the Celtic and Nordic influence on today’s Santa and Reindeer, mixing all those myths together we have antlers, long white beards, gods riding across the sky as well as an eight-legged horse, which could have a possible link to the eight reindeer. Sound familiar?
But the Santa and Reindeer we associate with now is more recognisable from recent times. In 1809, the novelist Washington Irving wrote a satire of Dutch culture entitled “Knickerbocker History”. The satire mentioned a white-bearded, Saint Nicholas riding a flying horse and going by the Dutch name, Sinter Klaas. Then in 1822, a professor, Clement Clarke Moore wrote the poem, “The Night Before Christmas” that includes a description of eight flying reindeer.
When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny reindeer
Santa, the red and white jolly all-round guy, has gone through a number of disguises since his pagan (pre-pagan?) birth. He has been dressed in green or red, with beard, without beard, tall or skinny, depicted as an elf, dressed in a bishop’s robe and in a Norse huntsman’s animal skin. But his current image is thanks to Coca-Cola. (Although Santa was depicted wearing red long before Coca-Cola turned him into merchandise.) The company’s illustrator, Haddon Sundblom, used “The Night Before Christmas” as a basis for his first Santa illustration in 1931 and for the next 33 years painted portraits of a jolly, fat, red-cloaked man to advertise Coca-Cola at Christmas time.
And so finally back to the reindeer. We’ve learnt that they are possibly symbolic of the Celtic and Nordic gods and other mythology of the time, but what about Rudolph? Rudolph was born purely out of commerce. He appeared first in a free short story book given to children by the Chicago department store, Montgomery Ward. The story was written by employee Robert L. May in 1939 about a reindeer with a red nose that helped Santa fly on a foggy night. The story was a huge hit and was eventually turned into the song, you’ve guessed it, “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer”.
So there you have it. A potted history of the Christmas reindeer. If Christmas is still being celebrated a couple of hundred years from now, who knows what other images will have become entwined in the mixed up traditions of Christmas celebration.