The Legendary Role of Reindeer in Christmas
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Robert L. May was a typical department store employee in 1939. He worked hard to see his employer, Montgomery Ward, succeed. Though he was but a clerk, he utilized his creative talents to provide the marketing department with a little something for the kids: a poem he entitled “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”.
The kids ate the Christmas freebie up that holiday shopping season. More than two and a half million copies of the poem went home with Wards shoppers that Christmas. When May republished the poem as a children’s book in 1946, millions more became familiar with the story of the misfit reindeer.
The story of Rudolph has been told in song and glamorized by a now-beloved television special of the same name. Robert May had no idea of the far-reaching impact of his story. And he likely had no idea that reindeer and their association with the season goes back to the earliest recorded history of Christmas celebration.
~ Thor, the God of Thunder ~
Ancient Norse mythology tells of the legend of Thor, the God of Thunder. Thor was known to fly through the stormy skies pulled in a chariot by magical goats named Gnasher and Cracker.
Over time, Scandinavian winter festivals that later become associated with Christmas celebrated the exploits of the Norse God. Using a costume made of goat skin and donning a manufactured goat head two men would pranced about as a goat, with some times having a third individual riding them. Such raucous holiday displays displeased Christian authorities struggling to control pagan winter rituals. Nevertheless, the celebration of the goat and his unpredictable behavior proved to be a popular and lasting element of the season.
The role of the goat, as in most roles associated with Christmas, has evolved at different times and has been recognized in different ways in different places. In Sweden, where the goat is a symbol of the season, he became a gift bringer in the tradition of Santa Claus during the 18th century. Though this fad eventually died out, the goat continued to have seasonal influence in places such as Denmark and Finland as an icon who would frighten small children and warn them to behave.
In fact, the traditional gift bringer in Finland is Joulupukki, which translated means “Yule buck”.
Even today, in Norway, children and adults will roam through their neighborhoods entertaining neighbors with songs in exchange for treats. Many families or groups of revelers will bring a goat with them or dress as a goat in playful remembrance of the God of Thunder.
~ Twas the Night Before Christmas ~
Were these Scandinavian legends a source of inspiration for Clement Moore when he wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas? Perhaps they were. Historians note that Moore, as an educator in one of the largest cities in America, might have had access to a poem by William Gilley that described Santa Claus being pulled by a team of flying reindeer. We will never answer that completely.
But we do know what Moore’s story has done for the legend of reindeer in the celebration of Christmas.
Moore named Santa’s reindeer Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donder and Blitzen. Curiously, the name “Donder” means “thunder” in Dutch and “Blitzen” means “lightning” in German.
Moore’s poem, published annually to the delight of Christmas celebrants, has done all that is necessary to establish reindeer as beloved symbols of the season. Robert May’s contribution only sealed the deal.
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