- Celebrating Christmas began when Christianity co-opted pagan celebrations of the winter solstice in order to make Christianity more popular.
- The concept of Santa was created out of a combination of older Norse and Germanic mythology.
- Reindeer were introduced as part of a children’s story that was published in the 19th century.
- Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was the result of a savvy advertising campaign in the 1920s.
If you grew up in a place where Christmas is celebrated, there’s a decent chance that you’ve heard the song — or at least the story — of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. But it turns out that Rudolph is only one of the more recent additions in mythology that dates back to a time before Christmas was even celebrated. The story of how Santa and his famous retinue of reindeer became a core part of Christmas tradition is more tangled than you might initially think.
While Christmas has become a Christian religious holiday for many people, its history shows it to be more of a mixture of mythology, solstice celebration, and a savvy advertising campaign. A study of the history involved shows that the “reason for the season” can be just about anything you want depending on your beliefs.
Reindeer in the Old World
Many of the old Christmas traditions we celebrate today weren’t created from anywhere but instead developed as a synthesis of Christian doctrine with the pagan traditions that preceded them. Reindeer appear frequently throughout the mythology and history of Arctic peoples. As one of the most prodigious sources of food and one of the last animals to be truly domesticated in the north, the reindeer — also known as the caribou — were often treated with both reverence and a sense of mystery. Cultures ranging as far afield as Mongolia, Canada, and Scandinavia feature reindeer prominently throughout their legends and stories — and it’s through a secondhand understanding of these tales that the reindeer would become closely associated with Santa Claus.
The Origins of Santa Claus
While the notion of Santa Claus as a jolly elf wearing red is a relatively recent invention, a similar character has roots dating back much longer. Early Christian church leaders looking to convert pagans to their beliefs more readily decided to combine a celebration of Jesus Christ’s birth with existing pagan holidays. Germanic and Nordic people would often celebrate the winter’s solstice as a tribute to the god at the head of their pantheon.
Odin — or Woten — was a fatherly god and mythical hunter who would lead his warrior on a Wild Hunt during this time, and he’d do so on the back of an eight-legged horse named Sleipner. Children would leave boots filled with hay and carrots for Sleipner, and Odin was said to leave them gifts in return. Over the years, these ideas would come to merge with the revered Saint Nicholas, and a vision of Jolly Saint Nick would start to form in the public consciousness.
The First Appearance of Santa’s Reindeer
While characters resembling Santa Claus would circulate throughout the world in the centuries that followed, the notion of a sleigh pulled by reindeer wouldn’t become prominent until the 19th century. It was at this time that America and England were both experiencing a renaissance of Christmas celebrations after a period of Puritanical opposition to the holiday. Washington Irving referenced Santa Claus “riding over the tops of the trees, in that self-same wagon” in 1812 with no reference to steeds pulling the wagon.
Nine years later, the first known association between reindeer and Santa Claus appeared in an anonymous poem entitled “A New Year’s Present”. The unnamed deer are mentioned briefly and only in a single line. The name of the author remained anonymous, but the poem’s publisher revealed that the author had learned of reindeer thanks to his mother passing down indigenous stories of the creatures.
Two years later, the mythology of the reindeer would be expanded. The poem “The Night Before Christmas” was written by Professor Clement Clarke Moore. Originally written as a story to entertain his daughters, Moore was initially hesitant to submit it to a publisher out of concerns that it was too silly. In fact, he kept his authorship of the poem a secret for decades out of concern that it would besmirch his reputation as a professor of ancient languages. But the poem would soon become a hit, and these eight reindeer would remain the recognized members of Santa Claus’ crew for well over a century.
The Identities of Santa’s Original Reindeer
“The Night Before Christmas” originally identified eight reindeer that lead Santa Claus’ sleigh every holiday. And while the poem gendered the reindeer as males, biology tells us that couldn’t be the case. Male reindeer shed both large amounts of body weight and their antlers after mating season, and that coincidentally falls right before winter. Only female reindeer would have the antlers — and the stamina to pull a sleigh with one jolly fat man — during the deepest days of winter.
While others have anthropomorphized the reindeer to give them more distinct personalities, the names seem to be chosen as much for how they fit within the rhythm of the poem than as a means to provide a deeper personality. Many of the names are derived from German. Dasher is actually drawn from the German word for a purse-maker. Donner and Blitzen — sometimes written as Dunder and Blixem — come from the German phrase for thunder and lightning. These are the eight original reindeer as they appeared in Clement Moore’s poem.
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
While other authors would try to establish their own mythology surrounding Santa Claus’ reindeer, it would take over a century for another reindeer to be added to the roster and recognized on a global level. Despite being named as “the most famous reindeer of all” in the song named after him, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was actually the result of a savvy advertising campaign.
Soda manufacturer Coca-Cola had found great success in the 1920s by releasing holiday ads that featured Jolly Old Saint Nick drinking their brand of soda. Chicago department store Montgomery Ward saw the potential of a Christmas campaign for drumming up business, and they commissioned copywriter Robert L. May to create a character who could feature in free coloring books that were given out to kids. The character May designed worked partly because it came from personal experience — with May drawing from his own experiences being bullied as a child to envision a lonely reindeer whose unique glowing nose offered a way to save Christmas.
The character — along with the poems that Ward wrote about him — became a major hit. In the decades that followed, the character would receive a song, a movie, and countless different types of merchandise. Far from being just the holiday spokesperson for a local department store, Rudolph actually became the most famous reindeer of all. Despite attempts to introduce members of Rudolph’s family — including a brother named Rustie and a son called Robbie — none have reached nearly the level of fame as Rudolph.
The true origin of Santa’s reindeer is a mix of ancient mythology and savvy marketing, but it’s the inherent power of these creatures that manage to continue to hold our imagination. Their prolific distribution throughout global tundras and their natural athletics and grace has made them a recurring presence throughout countless mythologies. But the reindeer of the real world is just as fascinating. Learn more about them here.
- Where Do Reindeer Live? We know the story says that reindeer live at the North Pole but where do they really live? Find out here.
- 12 Incredible Reindeer Facts for Christmas Reindeer aren’t just characters in a Christmas story, they are very real animals. Learn more about them here.
- Reindeer in the Arctic: How Do They Survive? Reindeer may not live at the north pole, but they do live in the arctic. Check out this article to find out how they survive in that harsh environment.
The photo featured at the top of this post is © iStock.com/Vladimir Melnikov
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