The Flying Reindeer

The Flying Reindeer
-By Angelique Duncan

Most folks know the eight flying reindeer that pull Santa Claus sled; Dasher, Dancer, Prancer and Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Dunder and Blixen. And everyone recalls that most famous reindeer of all, Rudolph. Some folks even know of Olive the other reindeer, but do we know where the magical reindeer at Christmas time come from?

Most historians cite the first usage of flying reindeer to pull Santa’s sleigh was in the 1823 poem; “A Visit from St. Nickolas” written by Clement C. Moore. However a more obscure reference to Santa’s sleigh being driven by reindeer appears in a publication dated 1821 in New York called the “Old Santaclaus with Much Delight” in which Santa has a single reindeer companion. The author and illustrator are not listed and not known.

The first reference to Rudolph and his glowing nose was in a free publication given to children as a marketing tool during the holidays by Montgomery Wards department store in 1939. A song recording based on that earlier marketing publication, written by Johnny Marks and recorded by Gene Autry in 1949 further gained Rudolph fame. Rudolph became immortalized when a television movie aired in 1964 loosely based on the 1939 publication, however with significant changes to the characters and storyline from the original tale. In 1999 Olive appeared in a made for television special that was inspired by a line in the Rudolph song. “All of the other reindeer” interpreted as “Olive, the other reindeer. In both productions of Rudoph and Olive the deer depicted are actually white tail deer and not reindeer.

Despite these accepted historical references as first appearances of Santa’s reindeer, the deer seem to have had a place in the Winter holiday season before being put into print in North America. They are present in early Norse, European and Celtic decorations and illustrations as winter icons traveling with Gods and elves, St Nicholas and other Yule and Christmas settings. Flying reindeer appear in documentation as significant to Pagan culture and winter beliefs well before department stores, radio and television broadcasts. These flying reindeer of antiquity may have been, on some level, the inspiration for the modern image of the flying reindeer we know today.

In Norse mythology Odin also known as Woden and also Jólnir was the deity who brought gifts during Yule celebrations. Woden was said to travel via a flying horse with eight legs whose name was Sleipnir. (Eight-legged horse perhaps correlates eight reindeer). It is also documented in Pagan beliefs that Woden was the leader of the Wild Hunt or Wild Ride that occurred during the Winter Solstice, the date of the Wild Hunt ranging from December 19th through December 21st. The Wild Hunt is often depicted as Gods, deities and ghosts that road flying horses and reindeer through the night sky.

Another Norse legend speaks of Thor riding a sleigh drawn by two flying horned goats. During the winter the goats would change into reindeer. The tradition of Thor at Yule was eventually morphed into the story of Junenisse who was a Yule goat who delivered gifts. This evolved into a elf who traveled with a goat and then just an elf who delivered gifts.

The stag and deer were associated with many Gods in different cultures and eras. In the Neo-Hittite era after the fall of the Bronze Age another God who was associated with flying deer and was the Stag God Karthuhas. The Hungarian Bards tell of a great stag who brings the sun to man by carrying it in his horns. In other Hungarian legends a female hind flies to the heavens and brings the moon, stars and sun to earth. In Celtic myth Cernunnos is the God of wild animals and fertility of nature. He is often depicted the same as the Green Man or the Lord of the Beast. Like Karthuhas, he was a horned stag man creature and like Woden, he flew through the sky on a sled with hellhounds and deer on an annual wild ride. Cernunnos also was said to turn into a Stag who would fly into the sky to capture the sun.

The Siberians refer to the “Heavenly Reindeer” who was a stag who is represented by the Bog Dipper constellation. He too flies to the sky, but instead of giving the sun, he steals it making the artic dark for a portion of the year. To return the sun a hunter must capture the stag. The appearance of female deer in late winter and early spring, known as Leukepius, will also return the sun.

In the Russia Far East tales were told of the creator bringing reindeer from the stars to give as a gift to the earth. The Sami people believed that reindeer created a bridge between this world and the spirit world and could travel between both at will. Ritualistic drums were made from Reindeer hides and beaten with a Reindeer bone to aid the shaman in traveling with the deer into the spirit world and as a tool to cast out evil.

Another historical reference to reindeer at Yule comes from medieval times in a carol, now known as the “Holly and The Ivy”. It is not actually known when the original lyrics were written. There is some controversy and disagreement among historians over the origins of the song and it’s intent. It surfaced in popular culture as a traditional Christmas Carol during the Victorian era as a collection of traditional English folk songs that were reprinted and part of a performance. However the version put to print and adored by Victorians was evidently not the original version. Some historians believe that “The Holly and The Ivy” was originally a traditional Yule or Winter solstice song. The lyrics are about the battle between the Holly and Ivy battling for who would be king plant of the forest during winter. It is believed the song in its entirety was filled with Pagan symbolism of Yule. However was changed by the Church of England in it’s efforts to stamp out all things Pagan. Part of this effort was to alter written texts and songs and reassign Christian imagery to popular and enduring Pagan imagery and tradition. In an effort to boost the Winter Solstice as the date celebrating the birth of Christ in lieu of a Winter Celebration, many references and artifacts relating to Yule were altered. Thus today’s version of the song is an awkward combination of Winter Solstice references and the Nativity. The carol is significant to magical reindeer in that a line in the song references “running of the deer.” Thus reinforcing deer as an important staple to Pagan Winter imagery well before the Night Before Christmas became mainstream. Whether or not the running of the deer is reference to life in the forest at winter, the Wild Hunt or did something magical in the song, we will never know.

Reindeer are also known as caribou have been an important part of the artic circle for centuries. Indigenous tribes of European countries as well as tribes of the North American hemisphere were dependent on reindeer for their survival. They herded and lived with and upon the caribou as a source of food and pelts. To the Sami tribes of Europe they were revered and it was believed the deer were sent from the heavens to provide the tribes with life. The tradition of herding and celebrating the reindeer is still part of the Sami culture.

In Alaska, Canada and the northern most regions of North America, as in Europe, reindeer were essential to life of native tribes as well. Their symbolism in Totems and mythology as a magical creature of respect is deep seeded in tribal culture of Eskimo, Inuit and other native Alaskan peoples. However the reindeer of the Northern American regions are not faring as well as their European cousins. Exploration for oil, natural gas and mining are pushing them out of their natural territories and is taking a toll on populations of native peoples and the caribou that support them. In North America wild reindeer are no longer present in many sates where they once were prolific as population sprawl and global warming have made them all but extinct in what once their natural environment.

Perhaps magical flying reindeer are just part of the stories of Christmas imagination. Or maybe they are the flying companions of ancient Gods or maybe they are enchanted givers of life from the heavens. They are a part of Winter Holiday traditions in fiction and folklore with a rich mythology. Look intently to the skies this Winter Solstice and listen closely to hear the clasping of hooves on your rooftop on Christmas Eve, it might be the horned creatures of Winter the reindeer on their magical flight.

Angelique Duncan is proprietor of Twilight Faerie Nostalgic and Capricious Objects. Check out her artist page to find links to her shops and vintage inspired traditional holiday art. Visit again next month for more traditions and folklore.

Christmas Spider Art Event

Halloween Artist Bazaar Christmas Spider Art Event

Participating members of Halloween Artist Bazaar have created special edition Christmas Spiders to celebrate The Legend of the Christmas Spider. One of our cultures most common holiday customs comes from a very old German and Ukrainian legend of one of the tiniest and misunderstood of creatures. The tradition of covering ones holiday tree in shiny sparkly tinsel originates from the Legend of the Christmas Spider. There are different versions of the legend however the root of the story is mostly the same across cultures. To read more about The Legend of the Christmas Spider…

Father Time, Death and the New Year

Father Time, Death and the New Year -By Angelique Duncan

The ringing of the New Year marks the arrival of Father Time to take away the old year. He is often depicted bearded, wearing a cloak, carrying a scythe and an hourglass. Sometimes accompanied by a crow, often Father Time’s companion is Baby New Year. In some renderings he is winged. His arrival marks an end of time and sometimes the death of an era.

It is believed that Father Time is the embodiment of the ancient Greek deity Chronos or Kronos. With many of the Greek deities, they carried over to the Roman mythologies. Chronos and the Roman deity Saturn were of similar nature. Both were Gods of Harvest and were depicted as carrying a scythe in which they would use to cut down crops. An overlapping mythology from the Greeks is that of Cronis, who castrated and killed his father Uranus by using a scythe. Some historians tell that the mythologies of Chronis and Cronis are of the same deity, some contend that the two are separate entities serving different mythological functions, much as Zeus and Saturn are similar in functions in their perspective cultures.

The word Saturn has the meaning to sow. Chronis holds a dual meaning of time and crow, hence where the crow companion who appears in illustrations of Father Time fits in. The scythe shape carried by the two deities is symbolic that time rises and falls and inevitably all things must end.

During the Renaissance era Father Time emerged as the keeper of time passage and our modern image of the deity was formed. He carries with him a scythe that cuts down time and timepiece either an hourglass or a clock face, symbolizing the constant flow of time forward.

It was once believed that we each have our own hourglass that is kept by Father Time. When our “time is up” and we have come to the end of our time on Earth, he comes to collect. During the renaissance era Father Time was also synonymous with the Reaper of Death. The imagery of the elderly male wearing a cloak with broad wings that collected souls at the end of their life was split to another entity of what is known today as the Grim Reaper, a skeletal man with a beard in a dark cloak with a scythe and hourglass in hand. The imagery of death developed his own persona and through out time no longer was depicted with the beard and hourglass, however the hooded cloak and scythe remain part of his repertoire.

Some cultures believe Father Time works alone, gathering the years as they expire. Others believe that Father Time and Baby New Year are the same entity. As the old year expires Father Time collects it and passes a New Year to the Baby to hold guardianship over and bring to maturity. As the year progresses so does the Baby to become the next incarnation of Father Time to hand off that year to a new Baby and the cycle continues. Some believe that the two work in concordance, but are individual entities independent of each other. The Father collects the old decayed era that has come to an end; the Baby brings the new fresh era.

The Baby New Year has his origin in Greek mythology of a baby that was ceremonially carried in a basket to symbolize the rebirth of the fertility God Dionysus. The custom of The Baby New Year was practiced by Germans and carried over to America through their migrations. The modern image of the Baby New Year now sports a top hat and a banner sash with the year he is custodian over tied across his chest. It was the Victorians, with their fascination of dressing children like adults, who are responsible for Baby New Years fashionable top hat.

Across cultures and spans of time a common theme of a Fatherly elderly bearded man appears at Winter. The Holly King is the Celtic God of the dying year. He rules from Summer Solstice through the Winter Solstice. The Holly King represents the darkness and decay of winter. Depicted often as a bearded man with a Holly crown. Some historians correlate the Holly King to Father Christmas. Father Christmas is depicted as a bearded man wearing a robe; in lieu of a scythe he carries a staff. Father Christmas was the precursor to the bearded St Nicholas and later Santa Claus. The Holly king is also thought to bear resemblance to Old Man Winter, the deity who reins over the winter months and brings cold, snow and the “death” of the sun until it’s season.

Each of these bearded fellows has their place in their cultures mythology and history. They may all be offspring in some fashion of the same mythology. They may serve to tell the story of Chronos or Saturn, defining end of eras and the sowing of time in the cross cultural belief that has stood the test of time. The image of Father Time holding his scythe and hourglass counting the minutes until it is time to collect the next expired year remains.

Farewell old year. A very happy young new year has arrived.

Angelique Duncan is proprietor of Twilight Faerie Nostalgic and Capricious Objects. Check out her artist page to find links to her shops and vintage inspired traditional holiday art. Visit again next month for more traditions and folklore.