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Understanding How Santa Got His Reindeer

Vintage Wisconsin: Santa Claus Has Had Many Forms Of Transportation

Wisconsin Historical Images

In the above image, Santa Claus drives a sleigh pulled by two turkeys. We can only assume the reindeer were busy.

The real St. Nicholas of Myra, a 4th-century bishop, and the Sinterklaas of Dutch lore are the primary figures behind the character of Santa Claus. But Sinterklaas rides a white horse, not a reindeer.

Reindeer were commonly used to pull sleds and sleighs in northern Europe, so it wasn’t an unknown form of transportation. But reindeer became a particularly American-form of Santa travel.

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Writer Washington Irving (he of “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” fame) described “the good St. Nicholas … riding over the tops of the trees, in that self-same wagon wherein he brings his yearly presents to children” in 1812. But Irving never says what drives the wagon.

Perhaps turkeys? They are an American bird.

Reindeer entered the Christmas picture in an 1821 booklet called “A New Year’s Present, to the Little Ones from Five to Twelve Number III.” The anonymously written verse contained the lines:

“Old Santeclaus with much delight

His reindeer drives this frosty night,

O’er chimneytops, and tracks of snow,

To bring his yearly gifts to you.”

Only one reindeer is referenced and pictured. That same booklet also contained the first images of Christmas stockings seen in America.

Two years later, in 1823, the poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” commonly known as “The Night Before Christmas,” not only upped the number of reindeer to eight but gave them names. Two of those reindeer had slightly different names that we know them by today: Donner and Blitzen were originally Dunder and Blixem, Dutch words for thunder and lightning. The German word for lightning, “Blitzen,” gradually replaced “Blixem,” and “Donner” became the popular name for the seventh reindeer after the release of the song “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” based on a popular 1939 story distributed through department store Montgomery Ward in 1949. That story — and song — also introduced Rudolph to the mix.

Santa’s had reindeer ever since.

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