Reindeer has come to be associated with the Christmas riding the tradition of the Santa Claus. As Santa is believed to
have from the far away North, what else than a reindeer drawn sledge can serve as a better carriage?
>It is man's most
ancient herd animal, the first animals being raised around 15,000 years ago. Up until about 12,000 years ago, reindeer grazed
over a vast area of Europe. Rock paintings by primitive peoples featuring them are widespread, as are discoveries of tools
made from reindeer horn. there was even a period of European prehistory in a part of France called Dordogne that is sometimes
called "the civilization of reindeer." The only surviving part of such a civilization might be found in Lapland, which is
the northern part of Norway, Sweden and Finland.
There are only a few thousand Lapps, but they own herds of many thousands
of reindeer. From them the Lapps obtain meat, milk, hair for weaving, hides to make tents and clothing, and horn, from which
they make households. They are also used to pull heavily laden sleds. It is all these multiple uses that have made reindeer
so endearing to people in the North.
Caribou, the name by which the Americans are more familiar with reindeer, comes
from an Indian word.
Question: I was wondering if you could inform us on the historical relevance of reindeer and the holidays? P. Agiaso, Fort Myers
Answer: As you probably know, reindeer do not exist in Florida.
The wild caribou and domestic reindeer are considered to be a single species throughout the world, but are called by
different names in North America. Long ago, about 5,000 years, people began to
tame caribou creating the domesticated reindeer we know today. At first, hunters
used the reindeer on leashes to get closer to wild herds of caribou. Later, reindeer
were used to pull sleds and in some cultures they were saddled and ridden. Eventually
they became a dependable source of food, hides, and transport.
Reindeer are a deer of the subarctic and arctic regions of Europe and Asia. The largest one reaches up to four feet at the shoulders and up to 250 pounds. Each reindeer can pull up to twice its own weight, making it an ideal animal for pulling a sleigh weighed
down with any load. The Santa Claus legend came about in 1823 from a publication called “A Visit from Saint Nicholas”.
Santa’s reindeer are the only known flying reindeer in existence. It is
believed that they were given the power of flight by magic corn that was given to Kris Kringle by a great wizard. Through
this magic corn, the reindeer’s strength is increased to three times, their stamina is increased infinitely, and their
hoofs can use the air as if it were solid ground. This means that the normal
reindeer compliment of nine can pull a sleigh full of toys up to 13,500 pounds for an unlimited amount of time.
Unlike other common deer, both male and female reindeer bear antlers.
According to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, both grow antlers in the summer each year. Male reindeer drop their antlers at the beginning of winter, usually in late November to mid-December.
Female reindeer retain their antlers until after giving birth in the spring. Therefore, according to every historical rendition depicting Santa’s reindeer,
every single one of them, including Rudolf, had to be a girl. Well, it is not
impossible that a male reindeer could retain his antlers until December 24, but it is unusual.
Maybe Santa only chose unusual reindeer. However, most of us know that
females are better with directions.
Speaking of unusual, Rudolf has not always been an essential part of Christmas. Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer came to life in 1939 as a promotional gimmick for Montgomery Ward department
stores. The company asked Robert L. May to come up with a story they could give
away to shoppers in the form of a coloring book. May’s brother-in-law wrote
the song that was later recorded by Gene Autry in 1949. The legend has been a
hit ever since.
Now back to the facts. Reindeer have a brownish coat that
is dark in the summer and light in the winter. The long hairs under the neck,
the fur above the hooves, and the fur around the tail are almost white. Reindeer
eat grasses, leaves, mosses, and lichens obtained by scraping away the snow. The
sheer numbers of caribou and reindeer have caused ecological concerns. Essential
lichens can be seriously overgrazed and other wild animals can then become displaced.
In addition, herds can threaten ground-nesting birds by trampling nests and eggs.
Most of the destruction comes from humans who herd reindeer degrading the tundra. Reindeer remain a profitable endeavor
in many countries.
I hope you have gained some insight about reindeer and the legend of Santa’s reindeer. Don’t expect to see a reindeer living in Florida, they only pass through once
a year - if you know what I mean.
Rudolph a Girl? Analyzing a Reindeer Problem
A story circulating on the Internet this holiday season claims that the famous Rudolph
may have been a girl.
Rudolph, the red-nosed reindeer, is the lead guy hauling the sleigh as Santa makes his annual one-night trip around the
As the much-emailed account goes, male reindeer generally shed their antlers long before December 25, whereas the females
retain theirs until at least January. The reindeer are always depicted as having antlers, so Santa's outriders must all be
But is there a scientific basis to this theory?
A hard look at the evidence suggests that at least some of Santa's reindeer were females (the ones giving the directions,
no doubt), some may have been young bulls, and some may have been neutered males. And Rudolph got to be the lead guy because
he had a snout full of parasites.
Many questions remain; how is it that Santa chose reindeer to haul his sleigh? Why not horses? And who made Father Christmas
fat? Inquiring minds want to know. >
Creating Legends and Traditions
Two children's books written in the early 1800s are credited with introducing the reindeer aspect to the Santa legend.
The first, The Children's Friend, published in 1821, contains an illustration depicting an elfin-sized Santa dressed
in red in a tiny sleigh pulled by one reindeer. The scene shows him delivering books and toys to good children, and a birch
rod to those that have been naughty, said Laura Wasowicz at the American Antiquarian Society. "The book is very rare," she
said. "We might have the only copy."
But it wasn't until 1823, when Clement Clarke Moore first published The Night Before Christmas in an upstate New
York newspaper, that the reindeer legend really took off. In Moore's classic poem Santa had eight reindeer and they didn't
"Every American knows this poem," said Stephen Nissenbaum, historian and author of The Battle for Christmas, which
was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 1996. "But the 1848 edition shows Santa and the reindeer as miniature—elfin—and
not flying through the air; they only leap into the air to avoid an obstacle or to get on the rooftop from the ground."
Moore is also the one who named the reindeer, as "Santa whistled and shouted and called them by name: Now Dasher! Now Dancer!
Now, Prancer and Vixen! On, Comet, on, Cupid! On Donder and Blitzen."
It's possible to envision males named Dasher, Prancer, and Blitzen. But Vixen? Even Dancer is questionable as a boy name.
It may be that Moore, who after all created the eight reindeer, knew it was a co-ed bunch.
Santa and his reindeer didn't attain life-size proportions until illustrator Thomas Nast began to depict Santa as a fat,
bearded fellow living in the North Pole for Christmas issues of Harper's magazine beginning in the 1860s. It was also Nast
who created Santa's workshop and the list of children's names, marking whether they'd been naughty or nice. Today only the
toy-shop workers are portrayed as elves.
Rudolph, the ninth reindeer, the one with the red and shiny nose, made his first appearance in an illustrated pamphlet
written in 1939 for the Montgomery Ward Company as an in-store handout for children. Rudolph became part of the zeitgeist
when Johnny Marks wrote the song Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer in 1949, and had the good luck to have it recorded
by the very popular singing cowboy, Gene Autry.
Still, why reindeer?
"I have no idea," said Nissenbaum. "I suppose the connotation is that in the north they use reindeer. Reindeer at the time
were starting to be depicted in children's primers, and were becoming vaguely familiar exotic creatures to people, much like
King Kong in more recent times."
Rudolph and Friends in the Spotlight
The question of Rudolph and his ' gender is slightly tricky. Santa's reindeer are always portrayed as having antlers.
So far, no problem. Reindeer, both wild and semi-domesticated, are the only members of the deer family in which both sexes
grow antlers. The question is when do they shed them?
"The largest bulls shed their antlers first, almost immediately after the rutting season ends in late October," said Pat
Valkenburg, a wildlife biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. "The sparring between bulls during rutting season
can be extremely violent. In herds with a lot of mature bulls, injuries from rutting can be the leading cause of death."
By the end of the rutting season, the bulls not only don't have antlers, they're so played out that the likelihood that
they could haul the fat man and tons of toys around the world in one night is slim.
Young bulls and cows can keep their antlers sometimes through April, depending on the nutritional conditions, amount of
daylight, and retention of testosterone.
The Sami people of Lapland, whose livelihood depends on their reindeer herds, frequently neuter their working reindeer,
which would interrupt the cycle that causes males to shed their antlers.
The evidence therefore leads to the conclusion that Santa's reindeer are either females, young bulls, or neutered.
Then there's the question of what made Rudolph's nose red—other than the whim of a copywriter.
In his book The Physics of Christmas, Roger Highfield, science editor for the London-based Daily Telegraph,
cites the research of Odd Halvorsen of the University of Oslo. Halvorsen pointed out in the journal Parasitology Today,
that reindeer noses provide a welcoming environment for bugs, and suggested that the "celebrated discoloration" of Rudolph's
nose is probably due to parasites.
Valkenburg offers an alternative conclusion.
"Rudolph is a mythical character," he laughed. "He can be anything he wants to be."
Reindeer are a species of deer located in the Arctic regions of the world. The largest Reindeer can reach up to
four feet high at the shoulder and weigh as much as 250 pounds. It is believed that there are no longer any wild Reindeer,
the entire species seeming to have been domesticated. Each Reindeer can pull up to twice its own weight, making it an ideal
animal for pulling a sleigh loaded down with any amount of cargo. Reindeer were first domesticated approximately 2000 years
ago and, in the Arctic Circle, the Lapps would herd them in much the same way as other nations herded cattle. Reindeer are
well-adapted to living in cold regions and under rugged conditions, able to smell-out food even when it is buried under deep
snow. Reindeer have large broad hooves which act like snowshoes to support them over snowy and boggy ground. These hooves
emit a "clicking" sound as the animal walks, caused by a tendon in the foot rubbing against a bone. The coat of the Reindeer
consists of thick fur and stiff hairs which protect them from the worst of the weather. A thick woolly undercoat keeps out
the deep cold by trapping air near the skin. These thick coats are also waterproof and, during migration, Reindeer are able
to cover vast distances, crossing both rivers and lakes, in search of favorable feedings grounds. The calves are born in early
Summer and have the ability to run almost from the moment they are born...a necessary trait if they are going to keep up with
their mothers. The antlers of a male Reindeer are larger than those of the female and are palmate at the top...akin
to open hands. An antler span of four feet has been recorded.
The Reindeer driven by Santa Claus are the only known flying Reindeer in existence, believed to have been endowed with
the power of flight by virtue of magic corn given to Kris Kringle by a great and wonderful wizard. Through this magic corn,
the strength of the Reindeer is increased threefold, their stamina increased to infinity and their hooves can manipulate the
air as though it were solid ground. Thus, a complement of nine Reindeer would be able to pull a sleigh brimming with 13,500
pounds of toys for an unlimited amount of time.
"Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" is perhaps the most modern of all Christmas symbols and certainly the most familiar
of Reindeer, even though he was not a member of Santa's original team. Created in 1939 by a 34-year old copywriter named Robert
L. May, Rudolph was the product of a request made by May's employer, Montgomery Ward, which wanted a Christmas story it could
use as a promotional tool for its chain of department stores. The Chicago-based company had been buying and distributing coloring
books for children at Christmas for many years and the idea of creating a giveaway booklet of its own was perceived to be
an excellent means of saving money. May, who had a penchant for writing children's stories and limericks, was called upon
to create the booklet.
Originally in poetry form, May composed the tale about a misfit reindeer by drawing, in part, upon "The Ugly Duckling"
concept and May's own childhood experience of being subjected to frequent taunting due to his small, slight stature and his
tendency toward shyness. Thus, May settled upon the idea of an underdog who is ostracized by the rest of the reindeer community
because of his physical abnormality...a glowing red nose. In search of an alliterative name for his misfit, May considered
and rejected "Rollo" as being too cheerful and carefree. He also rejected "Reginald," feeling it to be too British in nature,
before finally deciding upon "Rudolph."
The story was written as a series of rhyming couplets which May tested on his 4-year old daughter Barbara as he went along.
Barbara was delighted with the story, but May's employer feared that a tale featuring a red nose...an image usually associated
with drinking and drunkards...might prove unsuitable for a Christmas story. May responded by taking Denver Gillen, a friend
from Montgomery Ward's art department, to the Lincoln Park Zoo in order that Gillen could sketch some deer. Gillen's illustrations
of a red-nosed reindeer overcame the hesistancy of May's employer and the Rudolph story was approved. That first year (1939),
Montgomery Ward distributed 2.4 million copies of May's booklet, and although the wartime paper shortage curtailed printing
for the following several years, a grand total of 6 million copies had been given to children by the end of 1946.
The post-war demand for licensing the Rudolph character was enormous but, since May had created the tale as an employee
of Montgomery Ward, the company had possession of the copyright and May received no royalties. Deeply in debt due to the medical
bills resulting from his wife's terminal illness (she passed away around the time Rudolph was created), May persuaded his
employer's Corporate President, Sewell Avery, to turn over the copyright to him in January of 1947. With the rights to his
creation in hand, May's financial security was assured.
Later that year, "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" was printed commercially and, in 1948, was shown in theaters as a 9-minute
cartoon. The Rudolph phenomenon really caught on, however, when Johnny Marks, May's brother-in-law and songwriter, penned
the lyrics and melody for a Rudolph song. This musical version of Rudolph's tale was recorded by Gene Autry in 1949. It sold
two million copies during its first year and went on to become one of the best-selling songs of all time...second only to
"White Christmas." In 1964, an American television special about Rudolph, narrated by Burl Ives, was produced and remains
a constant holiday favorite to this day.
May quit his job in 1951 and spent the next seven years managing his creation. He then returned Montgomery Ward, where
he worked until his retirement in 1971. May died in 1976, comfortable in the life that his misfit reindeer character had provided
Although the story of Rudolph is best-known through the lyrics of Marks' song, May's initial rendition of the tale differs
substantially in many ways. The original Rudolph was not one of Santa's reindeers nor was he the offspring of any of Santa's
reindeers. Rudolph did not dwell at the North Pole but rather lived elswhere in an "ordinary" reindeer village. Although in
May's story Rudolph was taunted and ridiculed for his shiny, red nose, he was not considered by his parents as a shameful
embarrassment. Rudolph was raised in a loving reindeer household and was a responsible little fellow with a good self-image
and sense of worth.
In addition, the original Rudolph did not rise to fame when Santa singled him out from the rest of the reindeer herd because
of his shiny, red nose. Rudolph was discovered quite by accident when Santa noticed the glow emanating from Rudolph's room
while the kindly old gift-giver was delivering presents to Rudolph's house. Concerned that the thickening fog...already the
cause of several accidents and delays...would keep him from completing his Christmas Eve deliveries, Santa called upon Rudolph
to lead the team of reindeer, observing upon their safe return:
"By YOU last night's journey was actually bossed.
Without you, I'm certain we'd all have been lost!"
The eight named reindeer of Santa Claus first appeared in American literature in 1823, featured in the famous poem penned
by Clement Clarke Moore entitled, 'Twas the Night Before Christmas, also known as A Visit from Saint Nicholas.
Prior to the appearance of this rhyme, legend had the jolly toy-bringer's sleigh pulled by one singular anonymous reindeer.
By virtue of Moore's poem, Santa was gifted with eight reindeer: Dasher; Dancer; Prancer; Vixen; Comet; Cupid; Donder; and
Blitzen. Unfortunately, for Donder, however, this particular reindeer is not always given the recognition so well-deserved,
frequently being referred to as "Donner."
Confusion over the name of one of Santa's reindeer has been present from the inception of Moore's poem. The first
published version appeared in the New York "Troy Sentinel" in 1823 and contained a typographical error that listed a reindeer
by the name of "Dunder." However, when the poem reappeared in a collection of Moore's poetry in 1844, the name given
in the text was "Donder." Furthermore, Moore's own introduction to the collection indicated that "Donder" was indeed the correct
spelling he had intended. In addition, in a longhand version of the poem written by Moore the year prior to his death, he
again rendered the name of "Donder."
Part of the "Donder/Donner" confusion is that "Blitzen" (the reindeer with whom Donder is generally paired) takes its name
from the German word for "lightning," and the German word for "thunder" is "Donner." ("Donder" means "thunder" in Dutch, but
it is unknown whether Moore actually made this connection or whether it is merely a conincidence.) However, the true culprit
in the perpetuation of this error appears to be the song, "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer" (details of which are given above).
When this song was recorded by Gene Autry in 1949, the name of "Donder" had been transformed by Johnny Marks, the lyricist,
into "Donner." The reasoning for this is not known. Marks was not reflecting a popular usage, since any reference to "Donner"
being the name of one of Santa's reindeer did not appear in print prior to 1950. There has been speculation that the name
change simply made the words flow more smoothly.
"Donner" was used again in 1948 with the release of Spike Jones' "All I Want For Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth," but
in his 1996 television movie starring Angela Lansbury called "Mrs. Santa Claus," author Mark Saltzman correctly named the
eight reindeer in accordance with Moore's intentions. Roland McElroy also used the correct name in his Christmas tale, "The
Great Mizzariddle," as did Charles and Debra Ghigna in their book of Christmas poems entitled, "Christmas is Coming!"
With time, awareness and a little luck, perhaps Donder can once again be restored to the former glory of being known universally
as a member of Santa's original Reindeer Team and the imposter known as "Donner" be laid to rest forever.
|Reindeer antlers can weigh up to 30kg. Image: Reuters|
Since Clement Clarke Moore's seminal Christmas verse was published in 1823, people have strained their
ears every Christmas Eve to hear if not the clatter, at least the patter of reindeer hooves on their rooftops. Unfortunately,
we've been straining our ears in vain - short of invoking a little bit of seasonal magic, reindeer don't fly.
Reindeer don't fly because they do not have the physical apparatus necessary to facilitate such a feat.
Apart from the lucky team of eight (nine if you count Rudolph), there has been no need over the aeons for reindeer to evolve
features that would allow them to take to the air. In fact, relatively few vertebrates evolved the necessary features for
true flight (although there are a number that glide from place to place). Only three taxa - pterosaurs, bats and birds - ever
evolved the ability for powered flight.
Up, up and away...
Pterosaurs were flying reptiles that took to the skies during the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods. Although
long extinct, we know from the fossil record that the first vertebrates to fly under their own steam had a large wing membrane
that extended from their body to a hugely elongated fourth finger on their forelimbs. From what we can tell, this wing would
have been incredibly difficult to manipulate, and subject to significant damage from rips and tears in the membrane. Still,
pterosaurs were able to persist for around 140 million years.
|Bat's have developed many modifications for flight, including mebranous
wings. Image: Reuters|
Bats are the only mammals to have developed the ability for sustainable flight, and are the most recent
taxon to take to the air. Their membranous wings are "reinforced" by four of their five fingers, but bats, like pterosaurs,
could run into difficulties if they sustain a tear in the membrane. In addition to the development of their wing structure,
the predominantly nocturnal bats exhibit a number of other modifications for flight, including echolocation and well developed
By far the most highly evolved flying machines are the Birds. Over the course of 150 million years of
evolutionary history birds have become light, efficient, aerodynamic packages that have been able to successfully exploit
a range of environmental niches that were previously unavailable to vertebrates. Birds exhibit a range of modifications that
are solely geared to getting them off the ground.
The most apparent is the modification of the forelimb into a wing. Not only has this involved some serious
skeletal rearrangement over time, but also the development of musculature capable of working the wing. This has, in turn,
been responsible for a number of other modifications that have taken place in the avian skeleton.
The sternum in birds has a highly developed keel, for the flight muscles to attach to. (Not surprisingly,
this modification is absent in the Ratites - the group of flightless birds that includes the emu, ostrich, cassowary, rhea
and kiwi). Also, many bones in the avian skeleton have been fused together. The collarbone in birds (the furcula or "wishbone")
is fused to serve as a brace during flight, as are the thoracic vertebrae. The lower vertebrae are also generally fused into
an elongated structure that supports the pelvic girdle. The bones themselves have also undergone some serious modification
to make them lightweight. They are predominantly hollow, with a thin, lattice-like structure inside them to provide the necessary
|Feathers are a key to the success of birds' ability to fly. Image: Reuters|
Another obvious modification that has allowed birds to fly is the substitution of feathers for hair and
scales. Made from keratin, the same material as hair and fingernails, feathers are a key to the success of birds' ability
to fly. Unlike the membranous wings of pterosaurs and bats, the birds' flight surface is made up of hundreds of individually
replaceable units. Should one feather become damaged, it can be easily replaced, and the integrity of the flight surface is
Feathers come in a number of forms, depending on their function. Contour feathers are the stiff feathers
that cover most of a bird's body, protecting the bird and streamlining it for flight. From the central shaft of these feathers
extend vanes which branch into barbs. The barbs branch further into barbules, which have hooks on them that latch onto other
hooks on neighbouring barbules.
This has the effect of forming a single, strong surface suitable for flight. Should any of the barbules
unhook, the bird can re-hook them by preening. Flight feathers are longer and stiffer than contour feathers and are anchored
to the bone by connective tissue on the wing and the tail. Downy feathers are soft, fluffy feathers that provide insulation.
They do not have the hook structures present on flight and contour feathers.
Birds have also developed a unique respiratory system that not only facilitates gas exchange, but that
acts as a sink for the considerable amount of heat dissipated by the metabolism of the flight muscles and makes the bird less
dense, again making it lighter for flight. The key structures that make this possible are a number of air sacs that exist
in addition to lungs.
The air sacs themselves do not serve in gas exchange, but act as a type of bellows that keep air flowing
unidirectionally through the lungs. This system requires two inhalation/exhalation cycles for one "breath" to complete a full
circuit. On the first inhalation, air is drawn through to the posterior air sacs. On the first exhalation this air is drawn
from the posterior air sacs to the lungs. On the second inhalation it travels from the lungs to the anterior air sacs before
finally being expelled from the body on the second exhalation. This system provides a more efficient system of gas exchange
than the mammalian lung as the air passing across the diffusion surfaces in the lung is always fully oxygenated.
Another way that birds have been modified for flight is the loss of structures that are not absolutely
necessary, to lighten the load that the bird has to carry, as well as to make them energetically more efficient. Most male
birds, for example, do not have a penis and females have only one ovary. Birds don't posses sweat glands, nor do they have
a diaphragm. The heavy tail of other animals has been replaced by feathers in birds, and the teeth laden jaw and associated
musculature has been replaced by a light, horny beak.
Why won't you guide my sleigh tonight?
|Reindeer have been domesticated by humans for the last 5000 or so years.
Reindeer, on the other hand, have not developed any of these flight-specific characteristics over time.
Instead (and quite sensibly) they have evolved features that make them more suited to life in the arctic and subarctic climes
where they reside. While these features mean that reindeer are at home in the upper latitudes, they are nowhere near being
equipped for the upper atmosphere.
Their highly developed sense of smell is one such adaptation. Although their vision and hearing is not
the best, reindeer have a keen sense of smell which is useful for picking up any scent of danger and for finding lichen, their
staple diet, under snow cover.
Reindeer feet are also highly specialised. Their hooves are large and circular, and are effective tools
for scraping snow from lichen. Because of their large size, the hooves act as kind of snowshoes in winter, preventing the
reindeer from sinking into the snow. They are also effective paddles when the reindeer swim. Reindeer have large, soft foot
pads in summer, but in winter these pads shrink up, and hair between the toes forms tufts that cover them. This serves to
protect the fleshy parts of the feet when the reindeer walk on ice and snow.
The reindeer coat is another specialised feature. Over the woolly undercoat, which keeps the reindeer
warm, is a second coat made of hollow, air-filled hairs. The air trapped in this outer coat offers additional insulation,
and also provides buoyancy when the reindeer swim. It is so effective in this respect that only the lower two-thirds of the
reindeer are submerged when it swims.
Reindeer have been domesticated by humans for the last 5000 or so years, and have been bred to enhance
characteristics that improve their ability to pull sleds (on the ground!) or provide milk, fur and meat, none of which is
really conducive to flight. Even reindeer in the wild are too far down the evolutionary path to being ground-dwellers at the
top of the world to change tactics and take to the air, and it is incredibly unlikely that the selection pressures operating
on the reindeer would drive them in that direction.
Of course, all of this ignores the fact that Santa Claus is potentially the greatest scientist the world
has ever known. With his abilities to cross the boundaries of space and time, delivering presents to millions of children
all over the world in the space of a single evening, I'm sure that this minor biological issue is of little concern to him.
I have to go now - I think I hear sleigh bells overhead...