Arguably the greatest American contribution to Christmas is the story of Santa Claus arriving on the Eve in a sleigh hitched to a team of flying reindeer, known round the English-speaking world and beyond. Across Europe in December, “Rudolf the Red-nosed Reindeer” is heard in the mix of background music in shopping malls, and Christmas decorations often feature Saint Nicholas in a reindeer-drawn sleigh.
The story of that story begins on December 23, 1823 with “A Visit from St. Nicholas”, a poem in the Troy, NY, Sentinel, published anonymously but generally attributed to theologian and poet Clemet Clarke Moore. Though now seldom read in full, we all know the storyline of the man of the house, who is awakened on Christmas Eve by a sleigh drawn by eight reindeer landing on the roof. And likewise we know the lyrics of the enduring song, “Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer”, about a ninth reindeer with a luminous proboscis, first recorded by singing cowboy Gene Autry in 1949, based on a poem written in 1939 by Robert L. May for a children’s Christmas book published by mail-order retailer Montgomery Ward.
Today, the American story of Santa and his reindeer is as ubiquitous at Christmastime as is the tradition of decorating evergreen trees, first observed in sixteenth-century Germany. And, as history suggests, its roots are as European as those of the Christmas tree. The first known illustrated description of reindeer pulling sleds is in the travelogue “Opera Lapponia” by Johan Scheffer, a professor at the University of Uppsala in Sweden, first published in Latin in 1674 and later in English translation in 1704. That book includes a woodcut depicting a single reindeer pulling a pulk, the boat-like sled used by the Sami, for centuries the nomads of the north (“Lapp” is derogatory). Only one reindeer is shown, as, unlike other draft animals, reindeer are unwilling to cooperate with each other in teams. Like other literary figures of his time, poet Moore may have read extracts of Scheffer’s book, but not seen the illustrated original.
He certainly must have been familiar with the native North American modes of winter transport, first documented a century before Scheffer wrote. In 1576- 78, English privateer Martin Frobisher undertook three voyages to the New World, in part to search for a Northwest Passage. He didn’t find the Northwest Passage, but he is most remembered for claiming the Arctic for England and for keeping a meticulous log of his voyages, published in 1675 in Latin, with the title “Historia Navigationis.” The frontispiece of that book depicting native life shows a dog pulling a boat-like sled. Later, in 1833, German explorer Maximilian zu Wied- Neuwield ventured up the Missouri River to Fort Clark, where he painted a watercolor of a native traveling on a toboggan pulled by three dogs. Other accounts of life among the Inuit of the time include descriptions of the komatik, a sled on two runners about four inches wide, pulled by one or more dogs. Clearly, among the natives of North America, sleds were pulled by dogs, single or in teams. Moreover, as reported by Frenchborn Canadian explorer Pierre Esprit Radisson in 1665, caribou, a native word, was the name of the animal known in Europe as the reindeer, and caribou were game, not draft animals.
Apparently poet Moore combined the anecdote of the reindeer-drawn sled, about which he had only read, with the details of dogsleds with which he undoubtedly was familiar. So with poetic license, flying reindeer indeed might be hitched in teams, as were real sled dogs. Likewise, artists who drew Santa’s airborne sleigh most likely modeled it after the horse-drawn sleighs of the mid-nineteenth century. So, an airborne sleigh might well resemble a passenger sleigh with thin runners adequate to support it on rooftop snows.
Moore’s choice of the word reindeer may have helped perpetuate the story. Not only is reindeer a more-romantic word than caribou, but it’s been in English longer, since 893, when King Alfred the Great wrote down tales he heard from Othere of Hålogaland, including “rein”, the Norwegian name of the animal. That became the source-word in most European languages. The mere mention of a rein-word now connotes happenings in the far north, where Santa is said to have his workshop, at some undefined place. The mythical location of the workshop at the North Pole clearly is impractical, particularly for the elves working in its distribution center. In the Nordic countries where reindeer still roam, several towns claim the workshop. Most enterprising is the city of Rovaniemi at the Arctic Circle in Finland. About six miles north of the city, there is a Santa Claus Village and theme park, fittingly just two miles from the Rovaniemi Airport.
M. Michael Brady lives in a suburb of Oslo and takes his vacations in France. By education, he’s a natural scientist. His Dateline: Europe column appears monthly in the Gazette.