Raining Deer

This is the season where deer seem to rain down on us by the bucket loads, where they reign in various decorations, where they are often seen yoked together by reins.

You’d think reindeer would refer to those reins but the “rein” part of reindeer comes from the old Norse word for the creature: hreinn, so a literal translation of reindeer is actually “reindeerdeer”.

Reindeer used to run wild in Britain, but became extinct long before the Celts and Anglo Saxons showed up. Now they live primarily in the Arctic tundra and northern boreal forests (boreal seems to mean just south of the arctic, but I don’t guarantee that definition.)

But where did the idea of flying reindeer come from?

Some folks have postulated that while reindeer don’t make the fabled winter trip, people do. Donald Pfister, a biologist who studies fungi at Harvard University, suggests that Siberian tribesmen who ingested fly agaric may have hallucinated into thinking that reinddeereer were flying. Making a correlation to Santa is the idea that Shamans in the Siberian and Arctic regions dropped into locals’ teepeelike homes with a bag full of hallucinatory mushrooms as presents in late December, and since the doors of these places were often blocked by snow, the shamans came down the smoke holes. Add to that mix the fact that the mushrooms were red with white trim (spots, not fur) and the possibility of the shamans taking on reindeer spirits, you have a story not exactly fit for children. But it could explain why Santa lives at the North Pole — that’s where the story originated. (I always thought he lived there because if he lived anywhere else, Denver, for example, it could be easily proven that there is no Santa Claus.)

In 1821, the first known reference to flying reindeer found its way into the Santa myth (an interweaving of St. Nicholas and the Dutch Sinterklaas). The author of the poem “A New Year’s Present, to the Little Ones from Five to Twelve Number III” was kept a secret, but the editor of the piece claimed the author heard from his mother, an Indian of the area, that reindeer could fly. (“ ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” was published in 1923.)

Well, I hung my stocking by the chimney with care (I had to, otherwise it would have fallen down), though I have no hope that some red-suited fellow will soon be filling it. In fact, I hope he doesn’t. Would scare me half to death to see a stranger inside this house.


Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light BringerMore Deaths Than OneA Spark of Heavenly Fire,andDaughter Am IBertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

3 Responses to “Raining Deer”

  1. Carol Louise Wilde Says:

    This is quite fascinating and utterly charming! I had no idea that flying reindeer was an old folk tradition. I thought the author of “Twas the Night Before Christmas” had made up this bit of whimsy. I guess it just proves you can learn something every day. Thanks for posting this.

  2. Constance Koch Says:

    You are quite informative.

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