The History of the Christmas Reindeer

During Christmas time we’re surrounded by the tale of Santa and his trusted reindeer.  Stories such as, “T’was the Night Before Christmas,” and others like it have embedded Santa and his reindeer into Christmas culture. Often, children have memorized the song “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” by the time they’re five. We have fostered a Christmas culture heavily reliant on the concept of the Christmas reindeer, however, few know the reindeer’s true history. 

Reindeer Origins

Reindeer are native to Northern Europe and Asia. Reindeer who live in North America are referred to as caribou. The Sami (of Northern Scandinavia) and Nenet (of Russia’s arctic) are both indigenous groups who rely heavily on reindeer for a food source. Today, ten percent of the Sami population still herds reindeer. The majority of the reindeer population resides in Kautokeino and Karasjok Norway. Still today, it is a common practice for the Samis to herd the reindeer to the mountains for the cold winters.

Reindeer First Come to America

In the mid-1800s an indigenous group of people called the Inuit inhabited Northern Canada, Greenland, and Alaska. The members of this group were starving due to the commercial hunting of their main food source, whales. A missionary named Sheldon Jackson decided the solution was to transport reindeer to Alaska from Norway. In 1898, the United States government-funded the transfer of six hundred reindeer and over one hundred trained herders to the Alaskan shores.

Reindeer Enter the World of Christmas Marketing 

Carl Lomen is credited with marketing reindeer for the sale of their fur and meat. His goal was to make reindeer meat a staple among the American household. Lomen’s efforts to promote reindeer hit their peak when he partnered with the department store Macy’s. In 1926, Macy’s held a parade led by a Santa on a sleigh being pulled by reindeer. This stunt sparked a national passion for Santa and his reindeer which translated into more parades of this nature and an influx of marketing opportunities.

Reindeer First Appear in Christmas Culture

In 1821, the tale of reindeer guiding Santa on his sleigh first appeared in children’s literature. This anonymously published poem titled  “Old Santeclaus With Much Delight,” tells of Santa being pulled by a singular reindeer. The line reads, “His reindeer drives this frosty night.” The poem also includes eight illustrations, one famously depicting an image of Santa taking off behind his one reindeer.

One Reindeer Becomes Eight

In 1823, only two years after the aforementioned “ Old Santeclaus With Much Delight” was published, the famous poem titled “A Visit from Saint Nicholas” by Clement C Moore took off in popularity. Better known as “Twas the Night Before Christmas,” this story is credited with first telling the tale of Santa being pulled on his sleigh by eight reindeer. Soon after its publishing, the story became widely popular and the eight reindeer model was nationally recognized and adored.

The Short-Lived Ten Reindeer 

In 1902, a piece of literature named “ The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus,” written by L Frank Baum was released. This story included a list of the names of Santa’s reindeer, all differing from those used in “Twas the Night Before Christmas.” Baum listed ten reindeer names that rhymed in unison. These names included Flossie and Glossie, Racer and Pacer, and Ready and steady. “The names used in “Twas the Night Before Christmas” had already grown into extensive popularity that at this point, no alternative reindeer names would be accepted by the general public. 

The Late Rudolph 

We all know the story of Rudolph, the socially rejected reindeer who ended up saving Christmas by guiding Santa with his glowing red nose. In 1939, Robert L May first released this story for a promotion by the Montgomery Ward store chain. These books were handed out in their stores during Christmas time. This story became a Christmas classic and soon Rudolph was accepted as Santa’s ninth reindeer.