Christmas is around the corner and kids are ready to celebrate with Santa Claus etched in their imaginative minds. However, almost as iconic as Santa Claus are his flying reindeer – nine galloping reindeer who fly into the sky as they pull his sleigh around the world, helping him deliver presents to good little children.
We know them as Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner, Blitzen and, of course, Rudolph.
How did reindeer become part of the Christmas tradition? The stories of these antlered assistants to Santa Claus are as old as the bearded man himself.
Saint over the world
To know the origin of the reindeer, we can take a look at the origin of Santa Claus.
Before the rise of Christianity in Europe, many people practiced Norse and Germanic mythology, sharing tales of Thor, the God of Thunder – arguably the most famous of all Norse gods at the time. The mighty Thor was said to have flown in the sky, riding a chariot hailed by two magical goats with large horns. From the sky, he’d shout, “I’m Thor.”
As Christianity spread across the continent, the worshiping of Thor began to wane in place of one St. Nicholas, a saint from the 4th century AD who was celebrated for giving secret gifts. Much like the lovable Santa Claus, the saint was an old man who had a white beard and wore a red outfit.
St. Nicholas was also said to have traveled via a noble, white steed, instead of the magical goats depicted in the legend of Thor.
The tale of St. Nicholas found its way to North America as Dutch, German and Scandinavian settlers sailed to the New World. In 1812, American author Washington Irving referred to St. Nicholas as “- riding over the tops of the trees, in that self-same wagon wherein he brings his yearly presents to children.” However, what the author didn’t mention was what pulled the wagon.
This is where the tale of Santa’s reindeer began.
The steeds of Christmas
In 1821, William Gilley, a printer in New York, published a booklet called A New Year’s Present to tell a story of Christmas. It was this tale that finally made the reference to reindeer. The passage reads,
Old Santeclaus with much delight
His reindeer drives this frosty night.
O’er chimney tops, and tracks of snow,
To bring his yearly gifts to you.
The author of the booklet, however, was supposedly anonymous, presumably leaving some to question the authenticity of Gilley’s published story. Gilley was interviewed by editor of Troy Sentinel, Orville L. Holley, who was skeptical of the author and the inclusion of reindeer in the tale. Gilley responded,
“Dear Sir, the idea of a 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 honored 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.”
In 1823, the Troy Sentinel released the poem ‘A Visit From St. Nicholas’, better known as ‘The Night Before Christmas’, which featured eight flying reindeer that pulled Santa’s sleigh. Here, the names of the reindeer were given for the first time. In the poem, Santa would chant,
“Now, Dasher! now, Dancer! now, Prancer and Vixen!
On, Comet! on, Cupid! on, Dunder and Blixem!
To the top of the porch, to the top of the wall!
Now, dash away, dash away, dash away all!”
As to why reindeer were chosen over magical goats or noble steeds, it is most likely that someone took inspiration from the very animals that inhabited the lands close to St. Nicholas’ origins.
To people who lived in northern Europe, reindeer are highly valued for their connection to the lands they live in. By the 18th century, the animals were domesticated by some northern European cultures, especially the Sámi people (better known as Laplanders by non-Europeans), who used the reindeer for transportation to pull sleds and sleighs.
With this knowledge in mind, it is easy to think that someone may have taken the reindeer and used it for the Christmas story.
Dunder and Blixem, Santa’s seventh and eighth reindeer named in the 1823 poem, were named after the Dutch words of “thunder” and “lightning.” Other publications of the poem named the two as Donder and Blitzen, the German words for “thunder” and “lightning.” It wasn’t until Johnny Marks’ 1949 song, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”, that the name Donner would be used for the seventh reindeer. To this day, people celebrating Christmas sing the names ‘Donner and Blitzen’ for the seventh and eighth reindeer.
Whether the names were also inspired by Thor remains to be seen.
More than a century later, in 1938, Rudolph was added to the roster, created by Robert L. May for a promotional booklet for a department store, before the aforementioned song by Johnny Marks was conceived in 1949. Because of Rudolph’s unique, shining red nose, he has arguably become the most popular of Santa’s team – he even starred in his own animated movie in 1964.
Hence, the classic team of nine reindeer pulling Santa’s sleigh through the night on Christmas continues to captivate the minds of children and adults alike. They also showcase the mystical bond between humans and animals, reminding us of how vital the fauna of our world is to our cultures.