"His Reindeer Drives This Frosty Night": Santa's Reindeer

As establishment as Santa Claus's reindeer are today, the first actual written association with Christmas only occurred in 1821.

"A New Year's Present, for the Little Ones from Five to Twelve" was published by William Gilley--just published by, not written by, as he had received the story anonymously. It was only sixteen pages, and one of those pages included the following rhyme. "Old Santeclaus with much delight / His reindeer drives this frosty night."

The accompanying illustration depicted a sole reindeer doing the job.

Original illustration from "Old Santeclause with much delight," 1821.


Gilley did an interview the next year, asserting that he'd only received the story "with little added information." He went on to say that the author wrote in subsequent letters that he knew of reindeer--as well as their magical powers of flight--from his mother, who was a Native American from an Arctic area.

Only two years after this, in 1823, Clement Moore's poem was published in the Troy Sentinel and was titled "A Visit From St. Nicholas."

In it, Santa's upgraded from the 1821 poem, and his sleigh is famously driven by "eight tiny reindeer."

Of the eight, two had different names than what we're familiar with today: Dunder and Blixem, the Dutch words for thunder and lightning, respectively.

Sporadically, subsequent publications would switch to the German words for the same, id est, Donder and Blitzen. And eventually, by the mid-twentieth century, Donder had become Donner.

Handwritten mansucript of "A Visit From St. Nicholas" by Clement C. Moore.


Aside from their natural habitat in the tundra, reindeer had plenty of other reasons to become part of Christmas lore.

In Norse mythology, the god Odin rides the skies on his eight-legged horse, Sleipnir. The continuity of the number eight is particularly notable, along with the fact that Odin is one of the many that is thought to have inspired the legend of Santa Claus.

Illustration by John Bauer for "Our Fathers' Godsaga," 1911.


Moreover, in the same mythos, Odin's son Thor reigns a flying carriage led by a pair of horned goats.

These elements, married with the simple fact that reindeer were animals used for snow-bound transportation, makes the eventual affiliation with Christmas evident.

"Old Christmas," by Robert Seymour, 1936, possibly inspired by the Swedish sprite jultomten, which rides a Christmas goat called julbocken.


So an eight-legged horse becomes eight tiny reindeer.

As you may have noted, dear reader, Rudolph was not part of the original team. In fact, he didn't come crashing into that party for over 100 years. And it was not for sentimental reasons.

So there was this guy, Carl J. Lomen, a businessman who was seriously called "The Reindeer King." He was well-known for spearheading Alaska's reindeer industry, which was primarily about reindeer meat.

In 1926, Lomen entered into an agreement with Macy's Department Store to create a Christmas reindeer parade, and even having a real-reindeer window display, complete with Santa and sleigh.

Because I guess when people see wild herd animals crowded in a Christmas display, they immediately think, "I would like to eat that."

Anyway, Lomen the Reindeer Weirdo seemed to introduce the notion that reindeer and department stores were like peanut butter and jelly.

Carl J. Lomen, courtesy of the Library of Congress.


So maybe, 13 years later in 1939, the old Chicago-based department store Montgomery Ward was similarly inspired to try to cash in on reindeer, but that's purely speculative.

What we know is they wanted to create their own coloring book as a traditional giveaway during the holiday season, instead of wasting money on buying them from third parties. So as Christmas trees were discarded on curbs in January of 1939, Montgomery Ward was already looking to next year.

Advertising copywriter Robert Maywas assigned the task, on the simple instruction of writing "an animal story."

But it wasn't easy work. The Great Depression was in full swing, his wife had cancer, and he was writing stupid limericks to try to pay the bills when he had a degree from Dartmouth, for goodness sake.

But he worked away at it, and by his own account, as he stared out his office window at a thick fog from Lake Michigan, it came to him--a reindeer!

Robert's daughter Barbara, who was only 4 years old, loved to visit the reindeer at the zoo.

A male caribou (reindeer) grazing in the mountains in Alaska. Photographed by Dean Biggins for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.


Yes, that was it. A reindeer with a red nose, one luminous enough to cut through opaque fog on a perilous Christmas mission.

The red-nosed bit almost got trashed, however, when May's boss heard the Red Nose concept. At the time, a red nose was synonymous with drunkards. But he eventually relented.

May wrote down lots of name that alliterate with "reindeer." Romeo, Reginald, Rollo, Rodney.

But his favorite, which he circled in his notes, was Rudolph.

Sadly, May's wife died in July, in the middle of Rudolph being drafted, and May's boss tried to take the project away from the new widower. But May was adamant in his refusal, saying that he "needed Rudolph now more than ever."

Perhaps in an effort to distract himself from his grief, he finished the Rudolph story in August. He later stated that Hans Christian Andersen's "The Ugly Duckling," as well as his own childhood as a bullied misfit, informed the story.

Despite the thing about red noses and alcoholism, Montgomery Ward fully expected success from May's baby. An advertising memo from 1939 states, "We believe that an exclusive story like this aggressively advertised in our newspaper ads and circulars can bring every store an incalculable amount of publicity... and, far more important, a tremendous amount of Christmas traffic."

Rudolph was to be given to every child who visited one of the store's 620 locations, and they clearly expected it to be a hit. They were right.

A sum of 2.4 million "sold out" in 1939. Montgomery Ward then had to shelve the project of printing more due to the paper shortage caused by WWII, so Rudolph didn't return until 1946, when Montgomery Ward distributed 3.6 million copies.

And by the time he did, he was modern folklore.

Rudolph's red nose isn't utter fabrication, by the way.

A particular species of reindeer (rangifer tarandus, specifically) is equipped with a dense and abundant layer of capillaries in the nose. It helps the reindeer regulate its body temperature and supply enough blood to protect its snoot while it roots for food in the snow.

And thank goodness, really.

Otherwise Santa would have to break out Sleipnir.

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