An Eco Companion Guide to the Christmas Reindeer
Guess what? It’s that ‘most wonderful time of the year’ once again, chocked full of goodwill, sentimental TV adverts and internally dreaming of snow whilst externally lamenting how ‘chilly it is out there’. The holiday season is heavily rooted in tradition, and whilst the birth of Christ is a main focal point, we all can’t help but obsess over a present-giving, a bearded saint adorned in red and white. But what would Santa Claus be without his awesome animal companions? Reindeer go hand in hand with the festive period and are universally recognised come December-time; but how much do we truly know about these magnificent mammals? Sit back beside a crackling fire, with a mince pie to hand, and enjoy Eco Companion’s Guide to the Christmas Reindeer.
1. A Claus for Celebration
In North America, they are known as sidewalks, trash cans and caribou, whereas over in Europe, we refer to them as pavements, bins and reindeer. However, the first documented association between yuletide and reindeer came from a poem written across the pond in 1821. Old Santeclaus with Much Delight was first penned by William B. Gilley in New York City and is a pivotal piece of literature in shaping modern Christmastime. It is in this poem that we are first introduced to the concept of Saint Nicholas arriving on Christmas Eve, with the first ever mentions of a sleigh and the fact that it was driven by not just any reindeer; flying reindeer! Two years later, another poem was released under the title ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas which then detailed all twelve of the reindeer that we know and love today (Pop quiz: can you name them all?) First this, then The Pogues, what would Christmas be without NYC?
2. Wintry Wildebeest
Mass migrations make for magnificent wildlife documentary scenes, whether it be scores of species spanning the Serengeti or scores of lively locusts filing the sky. Whilst Santa’s reindeer cover the surface of the planet across a single night, it is their wild cousins that are famous for their epic journeys, just not quite on the same scale. Migratory herds of reindeer can sometimes reach up to two million individuals, with Alaskan reindeer travelling over 5,000 kilometres in a single year. This marathon is hardly a walk in the park, with reindeer battling some of the most hostile conditions on Earth. Crossing glaciers, icy tundra and thick taiga, as scenic as it may be, it’s nonetheless strenuous. You can’t help but feel that matters would be improved if they could just fly…
3. Swiss Army Deer
Surviving in the Arctic Circle and travelling across continents is hardly the most straightforward lifestyle. Luckily, reindeer have plenty of tricks up their furry sleeves to deal with such a demanding habitat. Firstly, they are insulated to the max, with two layers of thick fur that benefit heat regulation and provide much-needed buoyancy when crossing open water; it makes sense that some would have red noses! Secondly, their hooves change with the season to adapt to the differing conditions. Whilst the pads of their feet are soft during summer, they retract and harden throughout winter, acting like snowshoes. Additionally, it also makes their hooves ideal pickaxes, allowing them to dig under snow and ice to reach mosses and lichens – how multifunctional! Although their antlers would make great coat-hangers, the reindeer predominantly use them during the rut, when males spar one another. Bizarrely, females also grow antlers, and are the only deer species to do so. All the gear without the need for a backpack, great stuff!
4. Cultural Beyond Christmas
To many, reindeer are just fluffy animals that go on Christmas cards and jumpers. However, even today, these arctic giants mean the difference between life and death for several populations that rely solely on the existence of reindeer. Throughout Greenland and other parts of North America, reindeer are still hunted today for their meat and pelts, forming an intrinsic part of Inuit culture. They have also formed the basis of the Inuit calendar, with months being defined by landmarks in the reindeer life cycle. For example, May is known as nukalliut, defined as ‘when caribou fawns are born’. In parts of Scandinavia and Siberia, reindeer have been domesticated for the same purpose, with sautéed reindeer being a popular dish in Lapland. As well as for means of transportation and tourism, reindeer have also been domesticated for their milk – it would certainly liven up a glass of eggnog.
5. Caribou of the Cairngorms
So, you decide that you want to see reindeer in the flesh, the only problem is that they tend to move around, a lot, and they live in some of the most remote and inhospitable landscapes in the world. Getting a bus to Svalbard may seem like a bit of trek, but for any British readers, the prospect of reindeer may be closer than you think. The Cairngorms in Scotland plays host to a sociable bunch of semi-wild reindeer, roaming free across highlands. Today, around 150 individuals call the Grampians home, with regular tours up to the hills to meet these friendly creatures. As if stepping into a time machine, reindeer were once native across the United Kingdom until their extinction in the country over 800 years ago. After being ‘reintroduced’ in the 1950’s, they are more than happy roaming the Scottish mountains, a far more pleasant terrain than glaciers and tundra, trust me.
And there we have it, it turns out there’s far more to reindeer than you first thought. Indomitable survivors, vital sources of sustenance and true cultural icons. Christmas would not be as merry without them.