Santa And His Reindeer

By DiAnne Crown

September 3, 2010 6 min read

Assignment: Santa's reindeer. A quick, easy research piece. Right? Not so fast. A cursory search online turns up just one popular topic: Rudolph. And those links are mainly to children's picture books, songs and movies. So I headed to the library for a closer look at Christmas lore and discovered a world steeped in mythology, tradition and faith. To skip ahead, why do sources say reindeer -- instead of horses, polar bears or wolves -- pull the sleigh? Because they can fly, of course.*Santa Through the Ages People love their Santa Claus (U.S.), P?re No?l (France), Weihnachtsmann (Germany) and other legendary winter gift givers. The Father Christmas of Britain is, according to Niall Edworthy's "The Curious World of Christmas," "an amalgamation of Sinter Klaas and a more mysterious, uncertain figure from Norse and other pagan mythology ... bound up with the winter solstice and the coming of spring." One of the most beloved figures, Edworthy says, is the pious, benevolent monk St. Nicholas, who lived in what is now Turkey in about A.D. 300, traveled the region on horseback giving away his wealth, made a pilgrimage to Egypt and Palestine, and became bishop of Myra before his persecution and imprisonment by the Roman emperor Diocletian. Nicholas became the patron saint of many groups in many countries well into the Renaissance, particularly in the Netherlands, where "Sinter Klaas began his slow transformation from austere Asian monk into the jovial figure from the North Pole we recognize today." Including the red suit and reindeer. In Scandinavia, Edworthy continues, "for centuries, parents have been telling children that jolly elves, trolls and gnomes deliver the gifts in a sleigh drawn by goats or reindeer."*From Horses to Goats to Reindeer Stories featuring reindeer would make sense. "The reindeer is vitally important to the nomadic tribes of the Arctic regions, especially the Sami people," Edworthy says. "The only deer that can be domesticated provides fat, meat, cheese, clothing, footwear, tools and transport. The antlers and bones are used to make the tools, and the sinews are used to make highly durable bindings." The whole story, eight tiny reindeer and all, really came together in 1823, when the "Account of a Visit From St. Nicholas," a poem popularly attributed to Clement Clarke Moore, was published in New York's Troy Sentinel newspaper. Rudolph, in story and song, emerged in 1939, created to drive a Montgomery Ward ad campaign.*Really?! So there you go, except for the science behind the notion of male reindeer, antlers magnificent in silhouette, pulling a sleigh at Christmastime and standing patiently on rooftops with cheery fires burning below. Roger Highfield's entertaining examination of seasonal science ("The Physics of Christmas: From the Aerodynamics of Reindeer to the Thermodynamics of Turkey") questions the likelihood of male reindeer's still holding on to their antlers by Christmas Eve, suggests it may be females who pull the sleigh and notes that reindeer coats insulate too well for them to be willing to wait comfortably on warm rooftops. Robert Sullivan answers these and all remaining scoffers' questions in "Flight of the Reindeer: The True Story of Santa Claus and His Christmas Mission." Sullivan -- a journalist, editor and santalogist -- presents a comprehensive, illustrated look at reindeer species, accounts and photos of reindeer flight from an Inuit village in Canada to the North Pole itself, Santa Claus and his team of elves, and much more based on commentary by explorers, historians and naturalists, including National Geographic polar expedition leader Will Steger. The picture book format, the profile of people who lend their names to this work, and Sullivan's style make it a fascinating read. Well, those aspects and a willingness to shrug off all rational thinking and give it a chance. I know I settled in to read it that way. Guided by a scientist's perspective and tightly written by an expert at his craft, "Flight of the Reindeer" challenges any parent on the fence about perpetuating the myth to wonder, "Is this book really clever, or is it actually true?" Sullivan's well-drawn case seems entirely plausible; Santa can indeed circumnavigate the globe delivering presents to millions of households aided by elves and 150-pound Peary reindeer who can fly. Even now. "In the past decade and a half," Sullivan says, "the world has only become a more complicated place -- and the effort of the elves ever more complicated. Still, I've learned in going back to my sources, they persevere -- for the children. It's heartening, inspiring." Yet, he says, "Despite firsthand testimony, some people still doubt. 'Really?' they ask. 'Do they really fly?' Well, we shouldn't feel shy about asking; we shouldn't feel bad about disbelieving. The fact is debate has raged forever, not just among children but among scientists, as well." So I asked. Kyle Wilson is vice president of the Reindeer Owners and Breeders Association. Why reindeer? "Reindeer are native to the cold northern region -- Finland, Norway, Sweden, Russia, Mongolia, northern China and the North Pole," Wilson says. "And there aren't many other mammals that live that far north. There would also be some wolves, polar bears and musk oxen. But they can't fly." Finally, there it was, in person, the perennial problem for all children of a certain age who begin to have their doubts. Can reindeer really fly? Wilson: "Well, of course. You've got to believe."COPYRIGHT 2010 CREATORS.COM

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