Santa's Reindeer - History

Santa's Reindeer - Origin and History

Everyone knows how Santa travels while delivering his toys. He rides in a big red sleigh pulled by a team of flying reindeer. However, where did such an unusual and specific image come from? The legends that precede Santa such as the old Saint Nicholas folklore make no mention of these wondrous steeds, so when did it first come into play?

The earliest imagery connected to reindeer pulling a sled comes as far back as Old Norse mythology. The god Thor was driven in his chariot by horned goats, a similar enough image to leave a memory in popular culture. Also, Reindeer were an important early animal, domesticated in Russia and the Lapland region of as far back as 3000 BC.

In the early Washington Irving works that started to create the image of the modern Santa. In this story he traveled in a flying wagon, but with no mention of what steeds might carry it from home to home. This would take a few decades more, with the first known mention of them being in 1821. At that time, a poem published as A New Year’s Present mentions Santa having reindeer driving over chimney tops and through snow.

Soon after that, the poem that contributed so much to the modern image and folklore of Santa, The Night before Christmas was published. In it the reindeer are numbered at eight, mentioned as flying, and named. Although the names are well known, two of them have changed from the original printing. The last two reindeer were originally Dunder and Blixem, Dutch words meaning Thunder and Lightning. This was shifted in later printings to the German words, Donder and Blitzen. And in the 20th century, Donder’s name was simplified to Donner.

From this simple beginning, the idea of a flying reindeer has become a permanent part of the story and fun of Christmas. Reindeer are as common in decorations as snowmen or gingerbread men, and the names of the famous ones are a favorite part of kids’ memory.

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