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article artThe Reindeer: The Saga of Rudolph and His Cool Friends
by Marjorie Dorfman

Why has the reindeer been singled out of all the creatures in the world to lead Santa's sleigh in Christmas Eve? Where does Santa really live? These and other penetrating yuletide questions may or may not be answered here. Read on for some diversion, nevertheless.

Although they are called by different names in North America, the domestic reindeer and the wild caribou are in all probability the same species. In Eurasia some 5,000 years ago, natives began to tame the caribou and it is believed that all domesticated reindeer derived from those stocks. In these cultures, particularly the Sami or "Lapps" in Scandinavia and the Nenets and Chukchi in Russia, the reindeer became as indispensable to the economy and food chain as the bison was to the Indians of the American Plains. Reindeer hides supplied beautiful, light and warm clothes enabling people to work in frigid temperatures. Winter hides, one of the best available natural insulators, provided bedding and, sewn together with sinew, became the winter coverings of the large round tents called yarangas.

silhouetteDuring the long winter months food was often scarce and the reindeer provided milk as well as a means of transport. All parts of a butchered animal that could be used for food were consumed, including the intestines, which provided the Sami’s with vitamins that would have been impossible to obtain in other ways. Herding is still a primary profession and life in a reindeer camp is based on a mutual dependence between animals and people. No less than 1/4 of the Earth’s land surface is used for reindeer herding, but most of this is in the remote arctic and subarctic where farming and other human enterprises have been all but impossible until recent times. Husbandry includes the commercial sales of meat and some hides as well. Recently, reindeer antlers have become an important commodity for trade in the Orient. In the Russian republic today, reindeer number about 2,250,000. (It is not known how many among them may be card-carrying communists. (Joe McCarthy, where are you when America needs you?)

Different reindeer varieties have been developed in Asia to suit local conditions and needs, including transportation. The Chukchis have a breed that appears to be the product of longer domestication than most. Although excellent for meat production, they are poor at pulling sleds (the reindeer, not the Chukchis). These Asian people may have begun breeding larger herds for commercial meat and hide production in response to the 17th century arrival of the Russians. North America did not begin this practice until the late 19th century when Chukchi and Sami herders and Chukchi reindeer were brought to Alaska to teach herding to the Eskimos.

Santa's sleighThe reindeer has special characteristics that developed as an adaptation to arctic temperatures. Broad hooves enable the animal to walk on (and dig into) deep snow in search of food. The hooves are also flexible and can spread out over soft ground or snow. Both reindeer and caribou have unique hairs which trap air and provide them with excellent insulation. These hairs also help keep them buoyant in water. Reindeer are very strong swimmers and can move across wide, rushing rivers and even the frozen ice of the Arctic Ocean. (And you thought it was a big enough deal that they could fly!)

So how did this hardy, serious creature become connected with Christmas? Well, we do know that Rudolph, "the most famous reindeer of all," was born over a hundred years after his eight flying counterparts and ten years before his famous theme song. He wasn’t conceived at The North Pole, but in Chicago, and he didn’t come along until 1939 when a copywriter named Robert May included him in a story from the Montgomery Ward Christmas Catalogue. Clement Clark Moore, an American poet and professor, in his 1822 story-poem, "A Visit from St. Nicholas", published the other eight reindeer names. Ever since the publication of this classic Christmas tale, reindeer have been closely associated with Santa and have been mentioned in carols. As far back as the mid nineteenth century, Benjamin Hanby alluded to the animals in his "Up On The Housetop." Ken Darby’s 1942 musical rendition of Moore’s poem and the 1946 hit, "Here Comes Santa Claus" sung by Gene Autrey both featured reindeer. (And let’s not forget the more current and meaningful Country and Western hit of a few decades ago, "Granma Got Run Over By A Reindeer.")

Dancing with elvesIt was originally thought that Father Christmas lived at the North Pole. In 1925, however, it was discovered that no reindeer lived there and that Santa Claus’s real home was in Finnish Lapland. Finnish public radio revealed the location of Santa’s secret village as being in Lapla Korvatunturi, also known as "Ear Fell." The fell, which is situated on Finland’s eastern frontier, somewhat resembles a hare’s ears, which are in fact Santa’s ears, with which he listens to hear if the world’s children are being naughty or nice. On Christmas Eve the reindeer are sprinkled with a magic dust that grants them the ability to fly around the world (without benefit of first class or even coach). They fly at the speed of Christmas light, Rudolph in the lead with Dasher, Donder, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid and Blitzen close behind. Santa's image was modernized at the turn of the 20th century by the Coca-Cola company. They used an image of Santa, in the Santa costume we are all familiar with now in a variety of advertising campaigns. These campaigns helped establish Santa's "uniform".

In a document discovered 175 years after the publication of his famous poem, Moore describes the names and personalities of St. Nicholas’s symmetrical set of eight reindeer. Dasher is the left side leader and travels well in short spurts. Dancer, the left number two deer is a twin to Prancer. Hooves are well trained to maintain stability on snowy rooftops. Prancer, the left number 3 deer also has skillful hooves, but is less disciplined than Dancer. Vixen, on the left rear, has much energy, but is unpredictable. Comet is the right side leader and he is both speedy and enduring. Donder, the right number three deer, is the most disciplined of all the others and although she is very strong, she is not very enduring. Cupid, the right number two deer, is a hopeless romantic who moves quickly but is a poor leader. Blitzen’s name is derived from the German word for thunder. He is Donder’s closest companion. Although he is by far the fastest and most energetic of the eight, he is the least likely to lead the sleigh on Christmas Eve.

Rudolph, himselfRudolph was the creation of Robert May, who in 1939 wrote a Christmas-themed story-poem to attract holiday traffic. Using a similar rhyme pattern to Moore’s classic poem, he told the story of a young reindeer that was teased by the other deer because of his large, glowing, red nose. But, when Christmas Eve turned foggy and Santa worried that he would not be able to deliver his gifts that night, the former pariah saved Christmas by leading the sleigh by the light of his shiny red nose. Rudolph, the underdog turned hero, became a successful and popular concept. Montgomery Ward sold over two million copies of the story in 1939. When the book was reissued in 1946, sales topped three and one half million. In 1949, May’s brother-in-law, Johnny Marks, wrote a short song based on Rudolph’s story. Produced shortly after World War II and during a period of prosperity, people were ready for something new and had the money to spend. The song was recorded by Gene Autrey and sold over two million copies. Since then, the story has been translated into twenty-five languages and made into a television movie narrated by Burl Ives, which has charmed audiences ever since.

Santa's sleighWithout dear Rudolph, all of the reindeer in the world would be just distant arctic creatures, with the exception of Clement Moore’s eight friends, whose names are immortalized in his charming Christmas poem. Rudolph the champion, the underdog, the "Rocky" of the reindeer world, if you will, is the king of them all. May his nose shine bright through the darkness for the children, the children in all of us and for many a Christmas Eve to come!

Happy Holidays To All and To All A Good Night!

Did you know . . .?

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Here's a book you'll enjoy, year after year:

Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer

by Robert L. May, with David Wenzel (Illustrator)

Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer

The Original Classic Rudolph Story – over 107,000 copies sold! Now fans of the most famous reindeer of them all can become acquainted with the original story of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, written in verse by his creator, Robert L. May, in 1939. Sumptuously re-illustrated with the vibrant and magical art of David Wenzel, this beautiful edition of an American holiday classic is a book to treasure and to share, year after year

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