Santa is known around the world, but where did he come from, and why the reindeer?
A brief history of Santa:
Santa Claus is a fictional character inspired by St. Nicholas a Turkish monk who spent his life in service and generosity. The legend of St. Nicholas has gone from country to country inspiring different versions of Santa Claus. The Dutch immigrants can be thanked for bringing their Sinter Klaas here, which later became Santa Claus.
So, why the reindeer?
Well, when Santa first made it to the United States he was a vague idea of a generous man who gave gifts once a year, in December. This opened the door for interpretation of what he looked like, his motivation, his method, means of travel, and more.
In 1809 an account of the history of New York was published, and in it was a description of the celebration of Santa Claus by the Dutch, and what he was etc. However, this was not widely popular, it took poetry and illustrations to create the Santa we know today.
Clement Moore, an Episcopal minister wrote a poem we now know as “The Night Before Christmas” for his children. In his poem he personified Santa Claus, in his white beard, red jacket and red cap, as a jolly old elf, a man who used chimneys to come and go and bring gifts to children (much of which was part of the 1809 publication). It was in this poem that the idea of Santa having reindeer was introduced. In fact, Moore even named them.
It was not until after 1823 however, when Thomas Nast drew Santa Claus that this idea became an icon. Thomas Nast took this elf and made him a man who would sally forth on the night before Christmas in his sleigh, pulled by eight reindeer, and climb down chimneys to leave his gifts in stockings children set out on the fireplace’s mantelpiece. He had elf helpers.
It was even later that a ninth reindeer, Rudolph was added for the pleasure and benefit of children by Robert L. May’s Christmas story in 1939.
What is the purpose of the reindeer?
Santa Claus’ reindeer are a team of reindeer which pull his sleigh and help him deliver Christmas gifts. The poem that introduced them goes in part as follows:
With a little old driver so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment it must be St. Nick.
More rapid than eagles, his coursers they came,
And he whistled and shouted and called them by name:
Now Dasher! Now Dancer! Now, Prancer and Vixen!
On, Comet! On, Cupid! On, Donner and Blitzen!
To the top of the porch! To the top of the wall!
Now dash away! Dash away! Dash away all!
The poem brought them into being, and said that they flew, but did not describe them much besides that. It was in later years that their position in the sleigh and more were determined.
Of course, the idea of reindeer pulling Santa’s sleigh stuck, however, in some countries, such as Sweden and Finland, Santa’s reindeer traditionally do not fly.
For the sake of history it is important to note that the last two reindeer names were ‘Donner’ and Blixem when the poem was first published anonymously in the Troy, New York Sentinel in 1823. However, later when Moore finally took credit for his work (1844) the names were spelled Donder and Blitzen. However, today that has been simplified to Donner and Blitzen, as it is easier to get off the tongue.
So, now you know the history of Santa and how his reindeer-pulled sleigh came to be.