In North America, the species of deer we primarily associate with driving Santa Claus’s sleigh are called caribou. The genus name is Rangifer tarandus, within which are several subspecies. As with many species in the vast animal kingdom, the names attributed to subspecies vary depending upon dozens of factors, only one of which may be their geographical location. In the case of Rangifer, to quote the International Union for Conservation of Nature:
“The world’s Caribou and Reindeer are classified as a single species Rangifer tarandus. Reindeer is the European name for the species, while in North America the species is known as Caribou.”
So, you may be asking, if Santa Claus flying through the sky in a sleigh is largely an American invention — which it is, thanks mainly to Washington Irving in his 1812 publication A Complete History of New York — how did it become reindeer rather than caribou?
To answer fully, we must examine the etymology of the words reindeer and caribou. However, before delving into word origins, bear in mind that the two are not exactly the same, despite the generalization quoted above. Along with geographical locations, the difference between the two deer are mainly in their size. Caribou are much larger, elk-like, and have never been domesticated. Reindeer have a smaller body size and although they thrive in the wild they have been domesticated for over 2000 years, used similarly to horses for hauling and to pull transportation vehicles.
As a side note, the species is the only deer where both males and females grow antlers.
As we are surely aware, the Catholic Bishop Saint Nicholas of Myra in Greece is the inspiration (to at least some degree) for all the “Santa Claus” variations. Nearly every westernized country has some version of a “Santa” person who appears around Christmas, although surprisingly, the majority do not deliver toys via a chimney nor travel in any kind of flying conveyance. In fact, most do not travel from afar at all, tending to be specific to the country with their own traditions — but Santa Claus variations are not the point of this blog!
Father Christmas in England and Sinterklaas of Dutch lore are directly connected to Saint Nicholas, and it is from these two holiday characters that the American Santa Claus originates. Reindeer are not indigenous to England, however, it is a cold northern country in close proximity to the Nordic regions where majestic reindeer were not only plentiful but amongst the largest land mammals. In other words, it would seem a logical evolution to have reindeer carting Sinterklaas and Father Christmas around, right?
Well, not so fast! Father Christmas traditionally traveled on foot or on the back of a horse, and Sinterklaas has always been depicted riding on a white horse. So much for the rational connection to reindeer for Santa Claus!
It appears we are back to square one in the reindeer for Santa theories. Well, not so fast on this point either!
As I mentioned previously, Washington Irving refers to St. Nicholas “…riding over the tops of the trees, in that self-same wagon wherein he brings his yearly presents to children” in his 1812 story, but he never names the exact type of “wagon” or what propels it. If you read my posts last week on Washington Irving and his famous Old Christmas stories, during his years touring the UK he was deeply moved by the Christmas traditions and legends of England. That said, if his flying St. Nicholas concept was based on any tale heard while abroad, there is no record of it.
In 1821 New York printer William Gilley published a sixteen page booklet titled A New Year’s Present, to the Little Ones from Five to Twelve Number III: The Children’s Friend by an anonymous author. It included the following stanza:
Old Santeclaus with much delight
His reindeer drives this frosty night.
O’er chimneytops, and tracks of snow,
To bring his yearly gifts to you.
Whether the unknown author was inspired by Irving to make “Santeclaus” fly is unknown, but wherever he got the idea, this is the earliest written reference to reindeer. Yet it still does not obviously and clearly answer the question: Why flying reindeer?
One theory links to legends of Thor, the ancient Norse god of thunder, who flew through the sky in a chariot pulled by two magical goats. Reindeer were viewed as mysterious creatures symbolic of good fortune and joy, so connecting them with magical flying goats isn’t a huge stretch. However, this is pure speculation. When publisher Gilley was questioned about this very mystery, his response (which he said was from the secretive author) was this:
“He (the author) 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.”
It is a tragedy that this anonymous author cannot be officially noted in history as the one who gave us such a marvelous Christmas tradition as the reindeer driving Santa Claus. Whoever he or she was, this short paragraph in a small booklet brought all the legends and magic of a gift giving saint from wintery lands driven by flying reindeer into the American culture.
Two years later, in 1823, the Troy Sentinel published A Visit From St. Nicholas, the famous poem by Clement Clarke Moore, cementing the vision of reindeer pulling Santa’s sleigh forever.
When what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a miniature sleigh and eight tiny reindeer,
With a little old driver, so lively and quick
I knew in a moment it must be St. Nick.
More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And he whistled and shouted and called them by name;
“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!”