The Endearing History of Reindeer and Christmas

posted December 5th, 2015 by
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By Anna Holton-Dean

 

Christmastime is near, and we bet our mistletoe many of you will soon be singing “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” watching the iconic cartoon of the same name or even putting antlers on Fido for a holiday snapshot.

But have you ever stopped to ponder how reindeer came to be synonymous with Christmas? Or do reindeer even exist? While Rudolph alone might be a beloved, fictional character, reindeer are 100-percent real.

Spotting one might sound exciting, but reindeer are a common sight in  many regions where they are nowhere near endangered. They can be found in Europe, Asia, Greenland and even North America, particularly in Maine where they are known as Caribou; there’s even a town in Maine named Caribou.

Sometimes hunted for meat and  hides, reindeer are domesticated for milking and pulling things during Arctic or Subarctic winters, according to allpetsnews.com. “Caribou have large hooves that are useful tools for life in the harsh northlands,” according to National Geographic. “They are big enough to support the animal’s bulk on snow and to paddle it efficiently through the water. The hoof’s underside is hollowed out like a scoop and used for digging through the snow in search of food. Its sharp edges give the animal good purchase on rocks or ice.”

With that knowledge, it’s easy to see how a storyteller would choose reindeer for pulling Santa’s sleigh through snow. Throw in a little “willing suspension of disbelief” by giving them flight, now you’ve got a story!

“In terms of stories, Santa is much older than his trusted reindeer,” allpetnews.com says. As early as the 4th century, stories were told of a jolly old man dropping off presents during the Christmas holidays.

“But it wasn’t until the 1800s that reindeer joined the party. Previously, South Americans believed Santa rode a donkey, while Europeans thought he owned a white horse. Reindeer made their first appearance, it’s believed, in  the poem ‘A Visit from St. Nicholas’ (which we now know as ‘The Night Before Christmas’), written by Clement C. Moore.” The poem made them a permanent fixture in American culture.

So what about Rudolph? He was made for marketing purposes. In 1939, Robert Lewis May created a rhyming book for promotional purposes for Montgomery Ward department store. His book, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” sold more than 6 million copies over the next 10 years, allpetsnews.com says.

In 1947, Gene Autry recorded the Rudolph song and, just as the lyrics proclaim, he will surely “go down in history.”

And the red nose? “Reindeer have 25 percent more blood vessels in their nasal region than humans, meaning more blood flows there. At higher elevations, their blood flow increases    in order to keep warm, turning their noses a shade of red,” allpetnews.com says. Spying a red-nosed reindeer is scientifically possible after all.

Perhaps there is more truth to the reindeer lore than we ever knew.

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