Home History How Father Christmas Found his Reindeer

How Father Christmas Found his Reindeer

by Enochadmin

Illustration for Robert  L. Might’s Rudolph the Crimson-Nosed Reindeer, 1949 © Getty Photographs.

Once I was a baby, I might by no means have imagined Santa Claus with out his reindeer. They had been as a lot part of his character as his bushy white beard, his pink coat, or his sack of presents. In any case, how else might he have gotten round in the event that they hadn’t been there to tug his sleigh? Earlier than going to mattress on Christmas Eve, I’d take care to go away a carrot for Rudolph – and the subsequent morning, I’d swear blind that I’d heard hooves clattering on the roof earlier than I fell asleep. Little did I think how lately Santa had come by his reindeer – or how a lot their night-time sleigh trip owed to non secular reform, migration and cultural alternate.


Saint Nick

Initially, Santa Claus had nothing to do with reindeer – or with Christmas. His story begins with St Nicholas, a fourth-century bishop of Myra, in fashionable Turkey. Though little is thought about his life, the few hagiographical works which have come all the way down to us all testify to his love of youngsters and his generosity. Based on Michael the Archimandrite, he was as soon as informed a few man who had misplaced all his cash and was unable to supply dowries for his three daughters. Since this could have prevented them from getting married, they may have needed to develop into prostitutes to assist themselves. Naturally, St Nicholas was anxious to assist, however didn’t wish to disgrace them by giving alms brazenly. To keep away from this, he crept as much as their home late at night time and threw a handbag of gold via the window. When their astonished father discovered it the subsequent morning, he instantly sought a husband for the eldest. The following night time, St Nicholas did the identical once more. On the third night time, nevertheless, the daddy stayed awake and caught St Nicholas within the act. Falling to his knees, he hailed the saint as his household’s saviour, just for St Nicholas to lift him to his ft and beg him to not inform a soul in regards to the blessings he had obtained. 

Due to such acts of generosity, St Nicholas’ feast day (6 December) was later celebrated with the alternate of presents. In Twelfth-century France nuns are mentioned to have left fruit, nuts and treats outdoors the homes of poor youngsters. At across the similar date, St Nicholas was additionally reworked right into a magical bringer of presents. Notably in Dutch-speaking areas, ‘Sinterklass’ would sneak into poor peoples’ homes at night time and depart just a few cash or a bit of current of their footwear. 

For apparent causes, he was portrayed as a bishop, with lengthy, brightly colored vestments, a mitre and a beard. He was additionally mentioned to journey via the sky and to have an uncanny knack for remaining unseen. At occasions, St Nicholas was even related to sure animals. Within the Netherlands there was a convention of leaving hay for his horses, in some components of Germany he nonetheless rides a horse, in jap France he retains his presents in baskets carried by a donkey and in Italy he’s typically accompanied by a jovial ass. 

However of reindeer, there was no signal – and with good trigger. Though they had been as soon as widespread all through Europe, their habitat receded on the finish of the final ice age, to the purpose that they had been principally confined to northern Scandinavia and the Ural mountains. Aside from just a few temporary references in Aristotle, Theophrastus, Julius Caesar and Pliny, there’s little written testimony earlier than 1533, when Gustav I of Sweden despatched a present of ten reindeer to Albert I of Prussia – and completely nothing to attach them with a fourth-century bishop from Asia Minor.



The Reformation modified every thing. Due to Martin Luther’s insistence that Jesus Christ is the one mediator between God and man, most early Protestants rejected the Catholic cult of saints out of hand. Though they had been pleased to recognise that those that had led uncommonly holy lives needs to be held up as examples of Christian advantage, they refused to consider that anybody might intercede with God on one other’s behalf and regarded the veneration of saints as a type of idolatry. Any type of worship or celebration that appeared to level in the direction of the human as a substitute of the divine was therefore discouraged, if not actively forbidden. 

This spelled hassle for St Nicholas. Whereas he was seen as sufficiently virtuous to be included within the Lutheran liturgical calendar, the revelry with which his feast was historically celebrated was undoubtedly suspect. Little question it could have been best simply to ban it, however Luther was shrewd sufficient to understand that gift-giving had develop into so central to the festive season that it could be tough, if not unimaginable, to stamp it out. To beat this drawback, Luther merely transferred the follow to Christmas Day itself and centered consideration on Christ, God’s authentic reward to mankind, as a substitute. Though this didn’t essentially cease folks from celebrating the day in fashion, it did imply that, from then on, presents could be introduced not by St Nicholas, however by the ‘Christkind’ or ‘Christkindl’ (‘Christ-child’) who was often portrayed as a brightly arrayed toddler, with wings and a halo. 

Frontispiece for Josiah King’s The Examination and Tryal of Old Father Christmas, 1686 © Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington D.C.
Frontispiece for Josiah King’s The Examination and Tryal of Previous Father Christmas, 1686 © Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington D.C.

Even in some Protestant areas, nevertheless, the legacy of St Nicholas lived on, albeit in a modified kind. In England, a ‘Father Christmas’ determine was already effectively established by the reign of Elizabeth I. Clearly modelled after St Nicholas, he was held to embody the spirit of Christmas – and, as an engraving from Josiah King’s The Examination and Tryal of Previous Father Christmas (1686) suggests, was typically pictured as a burly man, with a heavy, fur-lined coat, a pointed, mitre-like hat and a beard. In some areas of Belgium and France ‘de Kerstman’ or ‘Père Noël’ got here to play an analogous position. However he nonetheless didn’t have any reindeer.



For a few years, St Nicholas and ‘Father Christmas’ continued to exist as separate traditions. Although in some areas, similar to Alsace and components of the Netherlands, the place Catholics and Protestants lived in shut proximity, every determine had a sure position to play in festive celebrations and confessional divides typically ensured that they remained distinct. 

By the late 18th century, nevertheless, demographic modifications on the opposite facet of the world triggered the 2 to coalesce. Following the Struggle of Independence, america skilled a dramatic rise in immigration. A lot of the new arrivals got here from Britain, Germany and the Netherlands – and the bulk had been both Protestants or nonconformists. It’s estimated that by 1780 greater than 1 / 4 of New York’s inhabitants traced their origins to the Low Nations, whereas New Jersey, Delaware and Pennsylvania had massive German-speaking minorities. After 1790 the inflow slowed a bit of, due largely to the disruption of the Napoleonic Wars, however by the 1830s immigration had begun to rise once more. Over the subsequent 20 years massive numbers of Irish Catholics got here. 

At first, totally different migrant teams all appear to have celebrated Christmas in their very own method. Whereas a few of the extra austere nonconformists tended to shun overly ‘pagan’ celebrations, others – notably the Dutch in New York – indulged in great revelry, with plenty of drunken enjoyable and sexual delinquency. Extra importantly, the place the custom of gift-giving was preserved, there was no single determine who introduced youngsters their presents – and there was a marked lack of readability over when he got here. 

However within the melting pot of the early United States, Christmas traditions inevitably acquired combined collectively. Practices and personalities progressively fused and long-separated concepts had been recombined. Although a lot of this may increasingly have been unconscious, it might have been inspired by efforts to include some communities’ excesses. First, the Dutch ‘Sinterklass’ was ‘translated’ into English to provide ‘Santa Claus’. This appeared for the primary time in a report within the New York Gazette on 26 December 1773. Then, just a few a long time later, Santa Claus was recognized with the English ‘spirit of Christmas’ and shorn of his affiliation with the Dutch neighborhood’s fondness for raucous celebrations. At occasions, it’s true, he nonetheless glided by one in all his outdated names or by mangled variations of a European analogue (e.g. Kris Kringle for Christkindl) however, in his attributes and method, he was now recognisable as one thing near the Santa we all know at the moment. 

Illustration of Santa and his sleigh, from The Children’s Friend, New York, 1821 © Yale University Library.
Illustration of Santa and his sleigh, from The Kids’s Good friend, New York, 1821 © Yale College Library.

He appears to have made his debut in Knickerbocker’s Historical past of New York (1809) by Washington Irving. A set of satirical sketches, this portrayed him as a fats Dutchman, sporting ‘a low, broad-brimmed hat, an enormous pair of Flemish trunk hose, and a protracted pipe’ and using throughout the sky in a ‘wagon’ filled with presents. However not till the publication of The Kids’s Good friend: A New 12 months’s Current to the Little Ones from 5 to Twelve in New York in 1821 did a reindeer come into play. One of many poems on this curious little e book started with the next, fateful verse:

Previous SANTECLAUS with a lot delight
His reindeer drives this frosty night time,
O’r chimney tops, and tracts of snow,
To carry his yearly presents to you. 

What prompted the nameless writer to introduce a reindeer is a puzzle. One risk is that it was merely all the way down to the climate. Though there was all the time an opportunity of snow at Christmas, the earlier decade had seen a few of the coldest climate on document. On 24 December 1811, Noah Webster reported that greater than a foot of snow had fallen in New Haven and in 1816 (the ‘12 months and not using a Summer season’), snow had even fallen in June. The winter of 1820-21 was particularly harsh. In New York the Hudson froze over and the town was blanketed in heavy snow. Most extraordinary types of transport turned unimaginable, however, because the native historian James Macauley later recalled, the ‘[s]leighing was fairly good’. Whereas there is no such thing as a document of reindeer getting used to tug any sleighs in New York, anybody curious about Santa might have been forgiven for pondering of the animals that had been used to tug them in stereotypically ‘snowy’ areas. Alaska would have been an apparent level of reference. Though it was not but an American territory, the usage of reindeer by indigenous peoples was already well-known – and it could have been a small step to hitch them to Santa’s trip. 


Enter Rudolph 

The variety of reindeer quickly grew. On 23 December 1823, the poem ‘A Go to from St Nicholas’ (also called ‘The Evening Earlier than Christmas’) appeared within the New York Sentinel. Later attributed to Clement Charles Moore, this described a chubby, if diminutive, St Nicholas using throughout the sky on a sleigh pulled by eight ‘tiny reindeer’ referred to as Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Dunder and Blixem. Later, two extra had been added. In L. Frank Baum’s story, The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus (1902), Santa’s companions had been organized into 5 pairs: Racer and Pacer, Fearless and Peerless, Flossie and Gossie, Prepared and Regular, and Feckless and Speckless. 

At about this time, Santa Claus was re-exported again to Europe, the place he progressively merged into the figures whose attributes he had been given. He additionally took his reindeer with him. However not till a lot later did Rudolph be part of his troupe. In 1939 Montgomery Ward department shops commissioned Robert L. Might to write down a narrative e book which could possibly be given to youngsters visiting their branches over the Christmas interval. In Might’s story, Rudolph was shunned by the opposite reindeer due to his brilliant pink nostril. However one yr, when fog threatens the supply of Christmas presents, Santa spots it glowing within the gloom and asks him to gentle the best way because the troupe’s ninth member. Although initially supposed as a neighborhood give-away, Might’s story proved so widespread that it later impressed a cartoon (1948), a track (1949) – and no finish of movies and books. 

Since then, Santa’s reindeer have been re-imagined numerous occasions. They’ve been renamed, pared down, beefed up and altered in virtually each method. However it’s now unimaginable to think about Santa with out them. And for those who hear rigorously this Christmas Eve, you may simply hear them in your roof, too.


Alexander Lee is a fellow within the Centre for the Examine of the Renaissance of Warwick College. His newest e book, Machiavelli: His Life and Instances, is now out there in paperback.

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