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How Did Reindeer Become a Symbol of Christmas?

“And every mother’s child is gonna spy to see if reindeer really know how to fly.” - Lyric from The Christmas Song

One of the most enduring childhood Christmas images is of Santa and his sleigh, pulled through the night sky by eight magical reindeer. Children don’t question the existence of flying reindeer, so it’s left to adults to make sense of this curious aspect of the legend of Santa Claus.

The Legend of Santa Claus

The story of Santa’s reindeer begins with the legend of St. Nick himself. Bishop Nicholas of Myra (in modern-day Turkey) is generally acknowledged as the original St. Nicholas. Even after his death, tales of his generosity spread throughout Europe. By the 1600s, St. Nicholas Day (December 6) was a widely celebrated holiday.

Pictures of St. Nicholas generally depict him walking or, sometimes, riding a white horse - no reindeer in sight.

Santa's Flying Reindeer

The legend of Santa Claus traveled to America with early settlers, particularly the Dutch who founded New Amsterdam, which would someday become New York. Santa Claus is mentioned in colonial publications as early as 1773. But the jolly old elf’s notoriety surged with the popularity of Clement Charles Moore’s Christmas poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas.”

In the verse, printed in the New York Sentinel in 1823, Santa Claus appears driving “a miniature sleigh with eight tiny reindeer.” The poem gives a further nod to St. Nicholas’ European roots with the original names for two of Santa’s reindeer. “Dunder” and “Blixem” are Dutch words meaning “thunder” and “lightning.” 

Perhaps not coincidentally, thunder is also associated with Thor, the Norse god of thunder, who carries a hammer named “lightning.”  Thor is often depicted traveling the sky in a chariot pulled by two horned goats. 

There are also Finnish Laplander tales of a magical reindeer that can fly through the sky. Other Scandinavian legends tell of the Sun traveling around the Earth in a sledge which, depending on the time of year, is pulled either by a bear or by reindeer. 

Stories like these likely inspired Moore’s invention of Santa’s reindeer. 

How Rudolph Joined the Herd

For more than 100 years, Santa’s sleigh continued to be pulled by eight flying reindeer.


However, times changed, and by the 1920s, so had Christmas images. One soft drink company gained cache with ads showing a jolly and satisfied Santa drinking Coca-Cola instead of milk. In 1939, Montgomery Ward jumped on the Christmas marketing bandwagon with a holiday invention of its own. 

The Chicago department store produced a children’s coloring book featuring a story by Robert L. May about a misfit reindeer who ultimately saves Christmas. Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer quickly became a sensation. As the inspiration for songs and movies, he easily has become “the most famous reindeer of all.”

Deer Decorations

Santa’s reindeer aside, deer Christmas decorations are common. Deer are native to many of the areas where Christianity took hold, particularly European countries like Germany and the United Kingdom. 

Deer were an important food source in winter and frequently figure in the legends of many cultures. Even today, it isn’t unusual to see these non-hibernating animals silhouetted against a snowy landscape. Therefore, it seems only natural that deer decorations would become associated with a winter holiday.

Today, Christmas decorations feature both woodland deer and magical flying reindeer from the North Pole. At Christmas Central, we offer a huge range of Christmas deer, from inflatables to tabletop figures to reindeer ornaments, throw pillows, stockings, tree skirts and wall art. Browse our selection to find your perfect deer decor.

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