Walking in the Air

Originally published December 2014

Hello everyone! Well after an eventful year of widespread flooding, WWI commemorations and an untimely lack of fungi we are on the Christmas countdown again. Our thoughts are turning to coniferous trees, food, drink, supermarket queues, Post Office queues and of course, animals! Millions of Christmas cards showing chirpy Robins, lugubrious Turkeys, magical Reindeer, sanctimonious looking Oxen and Donkeys, and even nauseating scenes of puppies and kittens adorned in tinsel, are making their way throughout the land and across the seas.

Cribs are being dusted down, stables raided for straw and teachers are working out in the gym ready to fend off indignant parents who feel their little one should be an angel, not the back-end of a camel! Recently the whole of Christendom took a collective gasp when Pope Benedict XVI disputed the presence of animals at the manger in his scholarly tome Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives (2012). However he went on to explain the importance of the imagery of the animals and added no representation of the crib is complete without the ox and ass; the global sigh of relief was palpable.

Of course, there is always room for a little satire:-

Instead of the glowing log fire and windows tight shuttered against the drifting snow, we have only the harsh glare of an alien sun; … Instead of the placid ox and ass of Bethleem … we have for companions the ravening tiger and the exotic camel, the furtive jackal and the ponderous elephant…
A Handful of Dust. Evelyn Waugh (1934)

Perhaps the most puzzling addition to the seasonal menagerie is the Reindeer (Rangifer tarandus).  As they are native to the Tundra areas of the Arctic, it is highly likely that the original incarnation of Father Christmas, St Nicholas, a 4th century Bishop of Myra in what is now south-west Turkey, was completely oblivious of their existence.

TQW Dec 14 reindeer

It is in the USA, the largest melting pot of global myths, cultures and traditions, where St Nicholas of Myra and Sinterklass of Dutch folklore morphed into Santa Claus and donned the fur-trimmed scarlet. Reindeer were first introduced into the modern Christmas myth in 1821 in an anonymously written poem named A New Year’s Present To the Little Ones from Five to Twelve, Part III:

Old Santeclaus with much delightHis reindeer drives this frosty night.O’er chimneytops, and tracks of snow,To bring his yearly gifts to you.
Anon. (1821)

The celebrated A Visit from St Nicholas (1823), more commonly known as The Night before Christmas went so far as to name each of the deer, albeit with the original Dutch names of Dunder and Blixem (Thunder and Lightning). This clearly reflected the poem’s New York heritage but many of the later editions substituted Blixem with the German equivalent Blitzen. By the time Robert L. May introduced us to Rudolph in 1939, Thunder had also changed nationalities and was renamed Donner. Clearly none of these writers, publishers or their critics were ecologists or even students of the natural world. If they had been, they would have known that only the female Reindeer keep their antlers throughout winter and therefore Rudolph is more likely to have been called Rachel!

It is a moot point whether we should quibble over such biological inaccuracies when, as children, we are made to believe that Reindeer actually fly through the air to land gracefully on our rooftops with a sledge laden with toys and the not inconsiderable weight of a traditionally corpulent chap in a red suit. Where did this surreal twist to the tale come from? As always we have some clues in the annals of ancient history and mythology.

The Joulupukki of Norse legends is associated with the Wild Hunt in which Thor, God of War and many other things, used two goats to pull his chariot across the sky. In these tales the Joulupukki or Yale Buck, as he came to be known, was a demonic figure in goat skin going around and frightening everyone. As the centuries passed, Thor hung his hammer up and the Yale Buck underwent a transformation to become a generous-spirited figure of whom children would sing songs about at Christmas. He eventually took over the role of Santa Claus in Finland and suddenly started using Reindeer to pull his sledge. This Santa did not fly around at night but rather knocked on doors looking for well-behaved children worthy of receiving a present. Nevertheless the association with soaring chariots in his earlier characterisation was possibly enough to fuel the imagination of those early New York poets.TQW Dec 14 reindeer 2

There is also a strong case for the idea of flying Reindeer coming out of Lapland where the animals have developed a liking for the euphoric effects of our favourite toadstool, Fly agaric (Amanita muscaria). The indigenous Sami people, who relied on them for food, tools and clothing, decided that drinking the urine of the fungus-chomping Reindeer would be the best way to forget the cold for a while, and so it proved! Flying Reindeer were probably the least strange thing their hallucinations fed into their minds and thus into their legends. The Shamen of Siberia used to feed the fungus to their Reindeer for the same purpose and the flying Reindeer theme has been deeply entrenched in their culture for thousands of years. Close to the Siberian border in Mongolia, the Darkhat Valley is home to an astonishing series of standing stones each bearing intricate depictions of flying deer. Scholars date them between 1000 and 700 BC; when the nomads of the Bronze Age gave way to those of the Iron Age. Interestingly, the traditional apparel worn by those Shamen harvesting the toadstool was a red outfit with white spots in honour of the crop. Now who would dress up like that these days?

But enough of this drug-fuelled speculation from far afield! Let us get back to a bit of British common sense and reality; bring on the Abbots Bromley Horn Dancers! For many centuries the good folk of Abbots Bromley in Staffordshire have celebrated Wakes Monday (between 6th and 12th September), Christmas, New Year and Twelfth Day by watching six men perform a ritualistic dance. Each man bears a set of Reindeer horns, one of which was carbon-dated to around 1000 AD.

The initial significance of the dance has been lost in the mists of time and the subject of much debate. However what is incontrovertible is the presence, albeit a long time ago, of Reindeer in our green and pleasant land. The Natural History Museum has a fascinating fossil record of the creatures that used to inhabit the land where our capital now presides; Reindeer beneath South Kensington, Hippopotamus and Elephants beneath Trafalgar Square, Woolly Mammoths under The Strand and Woolly Rhinoceros beneath Battersea Power Station! The Ice Age did for the Hippos and Elephants, and the subsequent climate warming, along with hunting pressure, saw an end to those animals adapted for colder climes. The last reliable record of wild Reindeer in Britain is around 8,300 years ago which means the Abbots Bromley horns are almost certainly Scandinavian in origin.

So there we have it. A brief glimpse at the mythology surrounding an animal that we have domesticated and venerated for millennia, shared hallucinations with, written about, sung about and generally taken to our hearts. Have a wonderful Festive Season, take time to enjoy Ma Nature’s domain during the Winter, and remember, a Reindeer is not just for Christmas!

It was a sledge, and it was reindeer with bells on their harness. TQW FatherChristmas 2But they were far bigger than the Witch’s reindeer, and they were not white but brown. And on the sledge sat a person whom everyone knew the moment they set eyes on him. He was a huge man in a bright red robe (bright as holly-berries) with a hood that had fur inside it and a great white beard that fell like a foamy waterfall over his chest.
The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. C.S. Lewis (1950)

Paul Johnson




Image 1: Reindeer Games by @notnixon, used under Creative Commons License 2.0 / Image 2: Reindeers by Aleksi Aaltonen, used under CC2.0



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