The Christmas magic of Santa’s reindeer

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And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name;

“Now, Dasher! now, Dancer! now, Prancer and Vixen!

On, Comet! on, Cupid! on, Donder and Blitzen!

To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!

Now dash away! dash away! dash away all!”

Standing proudly alongside Santa Claus himself, the eight reindeers have become world famous Christmas characters. Without the reindeers magical flight children across the world would be present less. But where did these reindeers come from? Regular reindeers unfortunately can’t fly, but nevertheless Santa’s reindeer has captured the imaginations of children and adults alike. But it does beg the question, who did first look at a reindeer and imagine it could fly?

A visit from St Nicholas’ by Clement C. Moore is largely credited for the popularity and naming of Santa’s eight reindeers. Prior to the publication Santa Claus had been associated with reindeers, this is thought to have largely originated from the Germanic God Odin who was said to have rode an eight legged horse known as Sleipnir. Nevertheless it was not until the poems publication in 1823 that the reindeers became famous. Moore is said to have wrote ‘A visit from St Nicholas’ whilst taking a sleigh ride on a snowy day, it was there that he gained much of the inspiration for the characters in the poem. In the original 1823 publication Donner and Blitzen were referred to by their Dutch names Dunder and Blixem. When re-printed in ‘An American Anthology 1787-1900’, the Reindeers names were translated into German and were now called Donder and Blitzen. Both of these names translate to English as the phrase thunder and lightning. When spoken on its own the German word for lightening is Donner, so the reindeers name was translated once more.


Image by Jonseidman1988
Image by Jonseidman1988

It was not until 1939 that the most famous reindeer of all would hit the scene. Rudolph was created by Robert Lewis May who had been asked to design a story book to give to children visiting Santa at the Montgomery Ward department store. By 1946 six million copies of Rudolph the red nosed reindeer had been distributed. It was May’s brother-in-law who decided to record the story of Rudolph as a song. Upon its release in 1949 Rudolph the red nosed reindeer sold more records than any other Christmas song, with the exception of White Christmas. Rudolph has now been immortalised as the 9th and best known of Santa’s reindeers, he shadows all of the other reindeers and has been the subject of many films and cartoons throughout the world. Sadly Robbie the Reindeer, created by BBC animation has not made it into the traditional reindeer fold, but he is known as Rudolph’s son and provides some great Christmas viewing.

One final question remains, were the reindeer’s boys or girls? Traditionally the reindeers are all depicted as males but they also all have antlers. At the beginning of the winter male reindeers loose there antlers, a female reindeer’s antlers remain until spring when they give birth. The only possible explanation is that young bull’s can often retain their antlers until spring depending on the environment around them. So to look at the story as a fact either Santa Claus’ 9 Reindeers were girls or very young males, but it is most likely that the reindeers were supposed to be males and were given antlers to appear more like the stereotypical reindeer. Santa’s reindeers have travelled far to transform into their modern day counterpart. Since 1823 the original 8 have been soaring around the world in one night every year without fail, which sounds like a lot of air miles, so perhaps this year, as a treat, you could leave an extra carrot at the bottom of the chimney.  

He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,

And away they all flew like the down of a thistle,

But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight,

“Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night.”

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