The idea of a saint in a sleigh pulled by reindeer is nothing short of bizarre– and yet this image dominates the Christmas season. Santa Claus’ reindeer are deeply intertwined into the modern mythology of Christmas. But where did this strange myth come from?
Several factors contributed to the modern idea of Santa Claus and his flying reindeer.
The Yule Goat
Historically, Yuletide (or the beginning of winter) was associated with goats. Pre-Christian religions honored goats during the winter season because they provided meat and milk even during the difficult months of the year. This may have influenced the current myth of flying reindeer.
In some regions of the world, Santa still rides on a goat when he comes to visit children in December. However, the United States largely rejects this portrayal because goats are associated with the Christian devil. Reindeer are a much more “good” animal according to historic representations.
In 1821, the first lithograph book published in America set the foundation for the idea of flying reindeer. Entitled “Children’s Friend,” the book told of a magical Santa Claus who rode a sled pulled by a single reindeer. It’s not clear if the anonymous author came up with the concept himself, or perpetuated an already-blooming concept of Santa and his reindeer.
Reindeer are native to the frigid Northern tundras, which are notoriously chilly. Because of this, it is easy to associate them with cold weather– which, of course, peaks around Christmas time. Santa’s flying reindeer team may have contributed to his own reputation as someone who came from the North Pole– historically, many European children believed that St. Nick visited from Spain.
It isn’t entirely clear if the idea of flying reindeer came about by accident. Although the “Children’s Friend” shows Santa Claus with a reindeer, it doesn’t explicitly state that the reindeer could fly. The famous poem “A Visit from Saint Nick,” or “Twas the Night Before Christmas” by Clement Clarke Moore, popularized the concept, but it may have actually been the result of a misreading.
The poem does state that the reindeer “fly” to the houses of good children, but some experts believe that this is a mis-reading. Perhaps Moore used the term metaphorically, in the same way that he refers to the narrator “flying” to the window. Nevertheless, the idea of flying reindeer caught on quickly– both because it enhances Christmas magic and because it helps to explain how fast Santa travels.
The Names of the Reindeer
“A Visit from St. Nick” was the first poem to name Santa’s flying reindeer. The poem identified eight reindeer– Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Dunder and Blixem. “Dunder” and “Blixem” are Dutch words meaning “Thunder” and “Lightning” respectively. However, they have been altered in recent decades to “Donder” (or “Donner”) and “Blitzen,” which are the German equivalents of these terms. Perhaps these translations are a bit more friendly to an English-speaking audience.
In 1939, Rudolph the Red-Nosed reindeer was added to the list of Santa’s reindeer. Robert L. May, a poet, composed the “Rudolph Song” for the Montgomery Ward chain of department stores. The song was printed in books and distributed to children during the Christmas season.
Other songs and poems have given other names for Santa’s flying reindeer, although none have taken great popularity. One poem names Santa’s reindeer as Racer, Pacer, Fearless, Peerless, Ready, Steady, Feckless, and Speckless. Other tongue-in-cheek names for Santa’s reindeer include Randalph, Chuy, Tavo, Beto, Pancho, Pedro, Leon, Cletus, George, Bill, Slick, Do-Right, Ace, Blackie, Queenie, Prince, Spot, Bruce and Marvin, popularized by relatively modern comedy songs.
The St. Nicholas Center and Merry Christmas offer more information about Santa Claus’ reindeer and their history.