December 24, 2012

Rudolph And Prancer: Their Story Of Christmas Fame

For over a hundred years or so, people worldwide, but especially Americans, have long considered the reindeer as Santa’s main mode of transportation. The reindeer has become such an important Christmas icon that the animal has its own mythos with Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer—you  know, the reindeer who was just a little bit different but was necessary for saving the day with that difference. Classic underdog story if ever I’ve heard one.

However, CNN correspondent Laura Galloway gives us the low down on the truth of the reindeer. The reindeer originates from Norway, Finland, Sweden, and the Kola Peninsula of Russia, all of which are part of the area known as Sapmi or Laplanders. The Sami, Europe’s oldest surviving indigenous people’s from Sapmi, have long been reindeer herders, and still are today. They originally brought the reindeer to Alaska in the late 1800s to provide food and goods for the Inuit people who were starving due to overfishing of whales.

Once the reindeer and Sami people made the trek to Alaska, they began training the Alaskan natives in reindeer herding and husbandry. Here comes the reason for their Christmas popularity. Businessman Carl Lomen saw the potential for the commercial, mass-market possibilities of reindeer meat and fur. So in 1926, he joined with Macy’s and promoted a Christmas parade led by Santa, his reindeer-drawn sleigh, and several Sami herders in their vibrant traditional clothing.

And thus was born Macy’s Christmas parade and the sleigh pulled by Santa’s eight reindeer: Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner, and Blitzen, and, of course, the ninth reindeer who led the sleigh in the thick fog and snow on that fateful night, Rudolph. However, Galloway shows us that the possibility of nine reindeer pulling a sleigh with Santa on it would be incredibly difficult. Apparently, reindeer are skittish in all their majesty, which means that they are hard to rig, control, and train. One would be challenge enough, but nine would be near impossible in even the most trained hands.

It’s important to know where our traditions come from and how they evolved. Like many traditions, we now know that the reindeer came about as a marketing ploy to make reindeer meat and fur more popular. In short, Lomen wanted to make money off of the reindeer. Instead, they are part of our holiday season as cute and magical beings that save the day and allow Santa to bring our presents. The reindeer have their own story in Christmas now because of the Inuit’s needs, Loman’s greed, and the reindeer’s majesty.

From the Sami and Lomen came an entire pop culture push for Santa and reindeer and Christmas parades. Today the Christmas season would be incomplete without mention of the reindeer, watching the Rudolph movie, and spending Christmas morning enjoying the Christmas parade.  For many, Christmas is not Christmas without Santa and his reindeer.

This year as we tell Rudolph’s underdog story, watch the floats with Santa and his sleigh and reindeer, and simply enjoy these images on Christmas in all their incarnations, let’s remember that reindeer have a real purpose and a real cultural history and need. They are not fantastical beings created just for the Christmas holiday. We should love how their cultural identity has evolved, but we should also know where their influence began.

Image Credit: patrimonio designs ltd / Shutterstock

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Rayshell E. Clapper is an Associate Professor of English at a rural college in Oklahoma where she teaches Creative Writing, Literature, and Composition classes. She has presented her original fiction and non-fiction at several conferences and events including: Scissortail Creative Writing Festival, Howlers and Yawpers Creativity Symposium, Southwest/Texas Pop Culture Association/American Culture Association Regional Conference, and Pop Culture Association/American Culture Association National Conference. Her publications include Cybersoleil Journal, Sugar Mule Literary Magazine, Red Dirt Anthology, Originals, and Oklahoma English Journal. Beyond her written works, she successfully created a writer's group in rural Oklahoma to support burgeoning writers. The written word is her passion, and all she experiences inspires that passion. She hopes to help inspire others through her words.

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