What's With the Reindeer Thing?
Since deadlines require this piece to be written by Christmas, however curious I may be about the outcome of the suspended shenanigans in the nation's capital, it will be at least another week before any outcome, or non-outcome, can be considered.
Therefore I'm going to share some recent research on a subject that never seems to get much attention: flying reindeer. I suppose if you're willing to buy into the notion that a fat old elf can skinny down millions of chimneys in a single night, his means of transport becomes a secondary issue; still, whoever conjured up the idea of flying reindeer?
Surprisingly, it seems to have appeared full-blown in Clement Clark Moore's 1823 poem "A Visit from Saint Nicholas," also known as "The Night Before Christmas." That poem apparently began the whole Santa thing, hurtling traditional old Saint Nick along a path that eventually had him selling Coca-Cola and sitting in malls with kids on his lap.
In 1823, the only means of propulsion, magical or otherwise, would have been animal power. Moore could have chosen flying horses or oxen or mules, but for some reason, he settled on reindeer.
Apart from avoiding the ungainly notion of a flying ox, he must have gotten the idea somewhere. There are at least two schools of thought, which may only indicate that some people, including yours truly, have too much time on their hands.
Perhaps the more sensible origin has to do with the Sami people, also known as Laplanders, who live in the extreme north of Scandinavia and western Russia. Before snowmobiles were invented, these people actually used reindeer to pull sleds. Usually only one or two reindeer were hitched up, however, because of their flighty (no pun intended) nature. The idea of eight seems pretty unlikely.
In a sort of grisly historical footnote, the reindeer thing got a big boost when Carl Lomen decided to market reindeer meat in the United States.
By the 1920s, the Lomen Reindeer Company owned upwards of a quarter-million reindeer, but sales were not going well. In 1926, he persuaded Macy's to put Santa and his reindeer in the big parade. The rest is history. Flying reindeer were a big success. Lomen went broke.
The other reindeer theory has to do with mushrooms. Hallucinogenic ones. It seems that in these same arctic regions, tribal shamans have harvested these mushrooms for hundreds of years. They dry them in the summer, then, at the winter solstice, they distribute them to their friends and neighbors. Since doorways are often blocked by snow, they drop them down the smoke holes in the native igloos. This isn't my idea; I found it online.
So what about the reindeer? Well, after everybody gets stoned on these mushrooms, they begin hallucinating, and what else is there to focus on but reindeer? I told you the other theory was more reasonable.
Then there's Rudolph. At least his genealogy is easy to trace. He was invented in 1939 by Montgomery Ward for a children's coloring book. He might have vanished into the limbo of failed icons, but Gene Autry recorded that song and the rest is history.
It's hard to believe that a sentimental little poem written nearly 200 years ago could instigate the Santa legend and the gigantic commercial event that is now Christmas. The entire retail industry is absolutely dependent on holiday sales; if there were no Christmas, it would have to be invented. Or maybe it has been.
Fred Wolferman lives in Southern Pines. Contact him by email at fwolferman@ sbcglobal.net.
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