And not just for those who hate Christmas.

In fact if you do hate this time of year, rejoice, because I might upset a few childhoods with this one. For everyone else, er, Merry Christmas and enjoy the ride!

First things first though, a reindeer and a caribou are the same animal.

Image by Foto-Rabe from Pixabay

“Reindeer” is its European name, probably from the Old Norse “hreindyri”, or “hreinn”, meaning “horned animal”, and “dyr”, meaning “animal”, in case you missed it the first time.

Caribou is the name used in North America, and comes from an Algonquian word “kaleboo”, meaning “pawer” or “scratcher”, after its behaviour when looking for food in winter. The word was then given the French-Canadian hat “caribou”. 

There are some slightly bizarre European legends, but the whole Santa-flying-reindeer one actually comes from North America.

Image by Darkmoon_Art from Pixabay

Santa Claus, or Saint Nicholas, first became popular as the patron saint of children and sailors, and it was considered lucky to get married or make big purchases on his feast day, 6th December. (This is also my birthday, just sayin’. )

Then in 1822, he became the round and jolly man we know of today thanks to a poem called “An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas”, or “T’was the Night Before Christmas”. Minister Clement Clarke Moore wrote it for his three daughters, and it also introduced the eight flying reindeer: Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner and Blitzen. I suspect Vixen fell victim to a rhyming dictionary.

The poem and its imagery became hugely popular in the States. Then in 1939, copywriter Robert L. May decided he’d try something similar to attract more customers to the Montgomery Ward Department Store in Chicago.

So here’s the first heartbreaker, kids: Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer was just a marketing ploy.

I’m not sure if that’s more or less sinister than this picture.
Image by Thomas Wolter from Pixabay

May came up with the story of a poor reindeer whose bright nose gets him bullied by the others, after which Santa takes pity on him and uses the brightness of said nose to guide his sleigh. Hooray for Rudolph!

The rhyme pattern of the story-poem mimicked that of “An Account of A Visit from St. Nicholas”, and it ended up selling two and a half million copies in its initial run. In 1949, May’s friend Johnny Marks – who also wrote “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” – came up with the famous song, which also sold more than two million copies on release and can be found playing relentlessly in most western European and North American shops today. I still think it’s a banger, though.

While Rudolph is definitely an American creation, the presents-and-sleigh thing isn’t. For instance, in one Scandinavian tale, a jolly elf called Jultomten brings a sleigh of gifts for children, only this time it’s pulled by goats. But what’s this about a flying reindeer and the end of the world?

For this we have to look at the folklore of the Sami, otherwise known as the Lapp.

This indigenous people of Scandinavia live in parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia, and have lived with and herded reindeer for centuries. As well as using their meat and skin and carving totems out of their antlers, they use boats to guide the reindeer to offshore islands during the summer.  As you can imagine, they have reams of stories and legends about them.

For instance, in one tale the Sami learned to tame reindeer after the sun god sent their daughter to Earth with a herd of them. And in a less peaceful, but kind of awesome contrast, reindeer seen battling were believed to be shapeshifting (human) shamans trying to resolve an argument or settle a score.

“Stags preparing for the rut” by Stravaiger, via Flickr.

In a group of stories collected from Russia’s Kola Peninsula, there were over 30 tales about a mythical reindeer called Meandash, who was either born to a woman who transformed into a reindeer, one who married one, or one who “fooled around” with horned animals during her wilder years. No pun intended.

In this region white reindeer were also highly prized and sacrificed to the sun,

“Gee, thanks…”
Photo by Hendrik Morkel on Unsplash

and a golden reindeer running up to you with a bell around its neck would conveniently drop some gold if you gave it a stroke. Not too much, though, or the gold would turn to iron.

Other accounts saw the sun carried through the afternoon and evening skies by a reindeer bull and then a reindeer cow, or a reindeer rising out of the earth, landing on the tundra and urinating on the ground to make it fertile. Before you laugh, that’s not an entirely unreasonable connection, which I’ll come to later.

But on to the doom-mongering version I mentioned earlier.

Like most legends there are a few variations, but the one recorded by Russian author Vassili Nemirovitsh-Dantshenko goes as follows: a giant white reindeer with a black head and golden antlers is being chased across the sky by a mountain spirit. The spirit is “ten pines high”, and his hunting dogs are the size of regular reindeer. At the first arrow let loose, the earth rumbles, and at the second, the world will turn to flames.

If the reindeer is ever caught and ripped to pieces by the dogs, and/or the spirit stabs it in the heart with a knife (both bad), the world will end. Even laying eyes on the reindeer in flight was to be struck blind, so seeing postcards from America with multiple flying reindeer on a supposedly happy occasion must have been a bit weird.

Flying reindeer have also been depicted on stones in parts of Siberia and Mongolia, so there’s clearly a theme here. But take heart. Although it can’t fly, the reindeer is pretty magical in its own way.

Winter makes its brown eyes blue.

Technically they’re golden, but you get the point. In winter, the reindeer’s eyes turn a deep blue, and less light is reflected back out of the retina, which can help your eyesight if you’re stuck in darkness 24/7 for months on end. The reindeer is also one of the few mammals that can see ultraviolet light. It makes you wonder how the aurora borealis appear.

I’m still wondering how it appears to humans, having missed it both times I visited Norway, gah!
Image by Noel Bauza from Pixabay

Also, in a reverse of the scimitar-horned oryx, the reindeer’s nose warms the air before it hits its lungs, and on the way out again, cools it by 21°C/70°F. It doesn’t need to waste it yelling for its buddies in a whiteout either, because the tendons in its feet “click” when it walks. Given that the larger the reindeer, the louder the click, it could be used to show who’s boss, or other social signals.

Image by Arne Nyaas from Pixabay

Another entry on the list of “surprising things it can do”, is survive off lichen. Not many large herbivores can do this because it’s very low in protein, but by recycling its urea (high-five from the Greenland shark) the reindeer gets enough nitrogen to top it up. So that kind of links back to the “urinating on the ground to make it fertile” part.

It digs up this lichen, or “reindeer moss”, with its hooves – hence its caribou name – and will defend its “feeding crater” from other reindeer. Females get an advantage here because they get to keep their antlers until spring, whereas the males lose theirs soon after the rut.

So in reality, Rudolph would be the only antler-less deer pulling Santa’s sleigh.

Another childhood illusion destroyed.

Here’s another one while I’m at it: it’s common to leave carrots out for the reindeer on Christmas Eve, but since it doesn’t have any upper incisors, it wouldn’t be able to digest them. “Reindeer food” with glitter in it is also super bad for the environment… I’ll stop now. Another kind of “reindeer food” also has some unexpected side effects.

According to Andy Letcher, the reindeer is partial to fly agaric mushrooms, which are apparently hallucinogenic. To the point that, after seeing some stagger drunkenly about and shake their heads around, some herders reportedly drank their urine to experience the effects.

So at the end of the day, somebody somewhere may have seen a real reindeer “fly”. And recovering from that may have indeed felt like the end of the world.

Reindeer Fact File

Latin: Rangifer tarandus

The Rangifer part might also be from the Old Norse hreindȳri, but via Middle French (rangier). The tarandus part means “animal of the north” in Latin.

What? Medium-sized deer with large antlers that lives in the Arctic and other cold regions.

Where? Most Arctic regions of Canada, U.S. (Alaska), Greenland, Norway, Finland, Russia and Mongolia. Domesticated reindeer were also introduced to Iceland, China (Aoluguya reindeer), and some islands in the southern Atlantic.

How big? Males are larger than females and can reach 1.2 metres / 3.9 feet tall at the shoulder. Their antlers can grow 1.4 metres/4.5 feet with up to 44 points.

Diet? Grasses, shrubs, and lichen (“reindeer moss”).

Behaviour? There are two types of reindeer: forest and tundra. The latter makes an epic journey with an epic crew; up to 2 million animals per year, migrating over 5,000 km / 3,000 miles between said tundra and forest, and spending winter spread out in woodlands. Forest reindeer, on the other hand, tend to have smaller herds, and stay in family groups of 6-13 with one bull and various cows.

Breeding season is in September-October, after which the bulls drop their antlers, and about 8 months later the cows drop a single calf. Reindeer milk is the richest of all hoofed animals (ungulates), and calves can eat fresh plants after about 1 month.

First recorded? Back in 1758 by Linnaeus. We think it was first domesticated by the Sayan people of Siberia, around 1,000 AD.

Endangered? Considered Vulnerable due to its habitat being divided up, getting in the way of migration, and of course climate change. The Aoluguya reindeer of China only number about 1,000, and due to isolation and inbreeding they’re considered endangered (unofficially, because they’re not a separate species).

Just to prove I’m not fibbing:

Caribou (n.)“. No date. Online Etymology Dictionary.

Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. No date. “Reindeer“. Britannica.com.

Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. No date. “Sami“. Britannica.com

Ermolova, N. V. 2003. “Evenki reindeer herding: a history“. Cultural Survival.

Ernits, Enn. No date. “Folktales of Meandash, the mythic Sami reindeer, Part 1“. Folklore.ee.

Ernits, Enn. No date. “Folktales of Meandash, the mythic Sami reindeer, Part 2“. Folklore.ee.

Gunn, A. 2016. “Rangifer tarandus. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species” 2016: e.T29742A22167140.

History.com Editors. 2020. “Santa Claus: Real Origins and Legend“. History.com.

Huuhtanen, Matti. 1992. “Reindeer Guard of Universe in Lapp Tradition : Folklore: In legend among these Scandinavian people, the animal with golden antlers fled across the sky from a hunter in a race against doomsday.” Los Angeles Times.

Ju, Yan, et al. 2018. “Genetic diversity and population genetic structure of the only population of Aoluguya Reindeer (Rangifer tarandus) in China“, Mitochondrial DNA Part A, 30(1):24-29.

Line, Les. 1979. “Word games“. Field & Stream magazine, October.

Miller, Matthew L. 2019. “Real Reindeer Are More Amazing Than You Ever Imagined“. Cool Green Science.

Moore, Clement Clarke. 1822. “A visit from St. Nicholas“. Poetry Foundation.org.

Rangifer“. No date. Merriam-Webster.

Reindeer“. 2017. Macmillan Dictionary Blog.

Stokkan, Karl-Arne et al. 2013. “Shifting mirrors: adaptive changes in retinal reflections to winter darkness in Arctic reindeer“, Proceedings of the Royal Society B, https://doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2013.2451

Why reindeer love magic mushrooms“. 2010. Drug Discovery Today.