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The Origin of the Christmas Reindeer

December Holidays
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The North American reindeer, also known as the caribou, is a deer species that lives in the northern part of the continent, primarily in the Arctic and Subarctic regions. The association of this animal with Christmas stems from the 19th century, in the story where Santa came to be flown around the world by eight reindeer. The mythology expanded further in the 20th century with the addition of the character “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” However, origins of the story stretch much farther back, to ancient Norse mythology and Scandinavian pagan winter festivals. Here’s a look at the origin of the Christmas reindeer and how it’s come to play such a central role in many Western Christmas traditions.

Ancient Origins of the Reindeer Myth

Modern stories of flying reindeer may very well have evolved from the ancient Norse legend of Thor, the god of thunder, who flew through the sky in a chariot pulled by two magical goats. Over time, winter festivals in Scandinavia associated with Thor gave tribute to these magical creatures, dressing up as goats as part of the winter rituals. During the 18th century, the goat became a gift bringer in the tradition of Santa in Sweden. This later evolved in Denmark and Finland to the goat playing a sterner role and frightening children into behaving.

Reindeer in “Twas the Night Before Christmas” and the Emergence of Rudolph

Clement Clarke Moore’s 19th century poem originally titled “A Visit from St. Nicholas”—and more commonly known as “Twas the Night Before Christmas”—is largely credited for describing Santa’s reindeer as we know them today. In his poem, he also named them, although in the original Dutch version, Donder was Dunder and Blitzen was Blixem. The famous icon Rudolph the Red-Nose Reindeer was added to the lore almost a century later, when Robert L. May, a department store employee for Montgomery Ward, was asked by the marketing department to write a Christmas story that could be given away to the customers’ children as a promotion. That year, in 1939, Montgomery Ward distributed over two million copies of the Rudolph booklet. After the conclusion of the war, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” was printed commercially in 1937 and was shown in theaters as a short cartoon the following year. Rudolph’s popularity was cemented when May’s brother-in-law, Johnny Marks, wrote a song after the character that was recorded by Gene Autry in 1949. This was later followed by a TV special produced in 1964 that was narrated by Burl Ives.

The reindeer has become an icon in holiday lore, particularly in the United States but also in other parts of the world. Today, it’s hard to imagine Santa Claus without his sleigh pulled by eight (or nine) tiny reindeer.

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