Raising the Roof for Reindeer

By Philippa Hadlow

Reading time: 12 minutes

Even though my father wasn’t much chop at the Christianity gambit and Mum was more spiritual than religious, we still managed to turn up at church fairly frequently. More often than not, Dad would just peer over the top of his newspaper as Mum, my two sisters, and I, trundled out the door, white-dressed and be-hatted as was church faring fashion and tell us to say ‘one’ for him.

As we got older and moved from New Plymouth to Auckland and then from suburb to suburb, we became less committed to going to church and more on practising the philosophy. Living in a family who followed a fairly basic Christian lifestyle meant we knew enough about Jesus to love and adore him. We'd sing carols non-stop in the shopping weeks and days before Christmas. Our voices would build until, in a crescendo of choral and consumer ecstasy, we’d finally collapse in a heap, hoarse and broke.

 

By Philippa Hadlow

Reading time: 12 minutes

Even though my father wasn’t much chop at the Christianity gambit and Mum was more spiritual than religious, we still managed to turn up at church fairly frequently. More often than not, Dad would just peer over the top of his newspaper as Mum, my two sisters, and I, trundled out the door, white-dressed and be-hatted as was church faring fashion and tell us to say ‘one’ for him.

As we got older and moved from New Plymouth to Auckland and then from suburb to suburb, we became less committed to going to church and more on practising the philosophy. Living in a family who followed a fairly basic Christian lifestyle meant we knew enough about Jesus to love and adore him. We’d sing carols non-stop in the shopping weeks and days before Christmas. Our voices would build until, in a crescendo of choral and consumer ecstasy, we’d finally collapse in a heap, hoarse and broke.

With Christmas Eve came high excitement. My sisters had pillowcases to put out but, because I was younger and apparently spoilt, I had a much larger Santa sack. It was as tall as me, made from stout paper and sported a full-colour Father Christmas with twinkly eyes, a cheeky grin, and one leg hoisted over a crumbling brick chimney ready for the great slide down. It was hardly surprising to see him looking so cheery. I always popped out enough of Mum’s rich fruit cake and Dad’s best Bristol Cream in the finest-cut sherry glass to keep him and his helpers very happy indeed throughout their arduous journey.

Once we’d set Santa up ready for his late-night feast, Dad would read to us from a tiny book called A Visit from St. Nicholas. Freshly bathed and in PJ’s, pillowcases and sacks ensconced hopefully at the end of our beds, we’d lounge about, listening to its sweet words. It was just the ticket.

Lying in bed pretending to sleep, I swear I always heard the jingle of sleigh bells. Clattering onto the roof a few seconds later would be the sound of cloven hooves and a whinny or nine (I realise now that reindeer don’t whinny – they grunt!). Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner, Blitzen, and Rudolph had arrived. I could never work out how nine reindeer were able to fit on our acutely-slanted roof, but maybe this story will tell all, because back in the day, Santa actually only had eight – all females, by the way.

Old Santeclaus with Much Delight

The first reference to Santa’s sleigh and the reindeer who pull it was published in 1821 in an anonymous poem called ‘Old Santeclaus with Much Delight’. The poem was one of a compilation in yet another little book entitled The Children’s Friend: A New-Year’s Present, to the Little Ones from Five to Twelve by William B. Gilley. The illustrator of the poem was also anonymous. The pictures were reproduced as engraved lithographs – an innovative style and the first of its kind in America.

The spirit behind ‘Old Santeclaus with Much Delight’ was rather more ominous than in future sugar-coated versions of the Christmas Eve story. The last couple of verses go like this:

“But where I found the children naughty,
In manners crude, in temper haughty,
Thankless to parents, liars, swearers,
Boxers, or cheats, or base tale-bearers,

I left a long, black, birchen rod,
Such as the dread command of GOD
Directs a Parent’s hand to use
When virtue’s path his sons refuse.”

– Old Santeclaus with Much Delight

The Children’s Friend provided the earliest depictions of a Santa Claus figure with one reindeer. Its connection with a Northern winter and threats or gifts for children delivered on Christmas Eve set the ball rolling for the next epistle. Heralding the advent of an additional seven reindeer was A Visit from St. Nicholas (later known as The Night before Christmas), published by the Troy Sentinel.

First written anonymously, its verses were described as “arguably the best-known … ever written by an American” (Burrows & Wallace, 1998). Authorship was accepted 14 years later by American writer, professor, and theosophist Clement Clarke Moore in 1837, although controversy remains over that claim to this day. Indeed, because of his lofty position in literary society, Moore was initially hesitant to have his name credited as the author. The poem was simple, naïve, and fanciful and dedicated to children – but hardly a work deserving of erudite attention.

Research undertaken by international scholars up until 2016 has suggested that the true author of A Visit from St. Nicholas was New Yorker Major Henry Beekman Livingston, Jr., a distant relative of Moore’s wife. Livingstone was of Dutch descent, which made sense of the spelling of Santa’s last two reindeer Dunder (meaning ‘thunder’) and Blixem (derived from the Dutch word bliksem for ‘lightning’):

“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!”

– Sixth verse, A Visit from St. Nicholas

In 1859, Livingston’s family disputed Moore’s authorship, and the debate raged on for a good hundred years or so – and is still unresolved. Whether written by Moore or Livingston, neither could’ve had any idea just how significant and enduring such a simple tale would become. The world latched onto A Visit from St. Nicholas and loved it unconditionally, while, over time, the reindeer Dunder turned into Donder, then Donner while Blixem morphed into Blixam, then Blitzen.

Then, quick as Santa’s twinkly wink, eight reindeer suddenly became ten! Always one to push the boundaries, in 1902, American author L. Frank Baum (of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz fame) wrote The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus. Leading from the front in Baum’s Christmas story were reindeers Flossie and Glossie, Racer and Pacer, Fearless and Peerless, Ready and Steady, and Feckless and Speckless.

While this team were cancelled out in favour of Clement Clarke Moore’s 1823 original lineup, Rudolph was late to the post and didn’t make a run for it until 1939 when Robert L. May introduced the ninth reindeer in his publication Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Rudolph’s glaringly bright nose lit the way from then on, leading the troops through heavy fog and possibly even inspiring the future stalwart motto pledged by American postmen: “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds” (Book 8, Paragraph 98, of The Persian Wars by Herodotus).

However, a long time before Rudolph et al made their debuts, in the Middle Ages and during Jul (Yule) time, Norse god Odin would deliver gifts astride an eight-legged horse called Sleipnir. Winter Solstice sleigh pulling might have been initiated by Odin’s son, Thor, god of thunder who commandeered two goats named Tanngrisnir and Tanngnjóstr to pull his chariot. The thundering noise produced by the chariot could well have led to the naming of future reindeer, Donner and Blixem.

Before I hear you grumble that we shouldn’t compare apples with oranges, or goats with reindeer, wait, because genome sequencing has revealed that cattle, reindeer, and goats (all ruminants) separated from a common ancestor around 29.6 million years ago. This evolution pointed towards the Oligocene epoch when one of the major changes was the global expansion in grasslands, encouraging deer, giraffes, pigs, and cattle to thrive.

Reindeer (otherwise known as caribou or Rangifer tarandus) increased in numbers throughout the circumpolar “Arctic Eight” regions of Canada, Finland, Denmark (including Greenland and the Faroe Islands), Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and US Alaska. Its domestication commenced between the Bronze and Iron Ages – that’s 5,000 and 7,000 years ago. Herds were gathered and encouraged to breed as pack and draft animals and for meat, milk, and hides; the antlers were carved into tools and totems.

Photo: Norman Tsui unsplash

Today there are Inuit bands of Eskimo people who follow the migration routes of reindeer, making them the primary source of their livelihood. Domesticated reindeer are used as pack animals and also for pulling sleds and other forms of transportation. Being strong-shouldered, they are ideal to utilise in sled and sleigh pulling, and their deeply cloven hoofs allow their feet to spread on snow or soft ground.

They are known as the official animal of Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada; their image appears on one face of the Canadian quarter, and they reign as one of the Arctic’s most prized game animals.

All very practical reasons to embrace the reindeer’s role in real-time, but we might still wonder why Santa needed a troop of reindeer in the first place. Surely, being magic, he could snap his fingers and children’s presents would just appear?

Well, every fantastical story is grounded in cultural belief. It seems logical that Santa would choose an animal already ancestrally adept at the purposeful and utilitarian work of pulling a sleigh to lead him safely on his global journey. The reindeer symbolises creativity, resourcefulness, and knowledge. They also represented safe journeying and endurance through travels, supporting the idea that reindeer brought people safely home over a harsh winter landscape.

That responsibility could probably extend to the reindeers’ role of ensuring Santa gets to where he needs to be, on time, with Christmas presents intact and in order. It’s a story as much embedded in Paganism as in modern-day Christianity. Take a moment to hum Rudolph’s special song about endurance, resilience, and love coined in 1949 by Johnny Marks and sung by Gene Autry. The final verse in this gorgeous, catchy wee tune says it all:

“Then how the reindeer loved him
As they shouted out with glee
‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
You’ll go down in history!”

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