I am not exactly sure when I started noticing reindeer as a Christmas symbol, beyond just the figure pulling Santa’s sleigh but my fascination with reindeer has grown over the last few years, and I have been compelled to dig deeper into its significance and symbolism not just as it relates to Christmas but also the importance it holds in some cultures and households.
Indeed, reindeer very much do exist, and are in fact incredible creatures able to survive in the harsh arctic climates of Northern Europe and North America. For thousands of years, they have provided many life-giving elements to wandering nordic people such as highly nutritious meat, hides for clothing, and antlers for tools and adornments.
In fact, long before guiding Santa’s sleigh though the night, it is believed that the noble Reindeer was a sacred animal to the semi-nomadic people of Northern Europe and played a significant role in their subsistence and their culture.
In cave drawings found there, the animal is often depicted in-flight, soaring through the air, portrayed as intermediaries between the human world and the spirit world. Different legends tell of great Nordic goddesses taking flight with the mythical creatures during the winter solstice, to bring light and new life to the world of humans below.
Technically, reindeer and caribou are the same animal and are a member of the deer family. In Europe and Asia, they are called reindeer. In North America, the animals are called caribou if they are wild and reindeer if they are domesticated. Most reindeer in Eurasia are domestic, where they have been herded for at least 2,000 years and often still roam widely with herders leading them on migration routes. Currently reindeer herding is still practiced in Finland, Sweden, Norway, Russia, Mongolia, China, Greenland, Canada and the U.S. (Alaska).
Among the Inuit, there is a story of the origin of the caribou.
Reindeer are known to be cunning survivalists and symbolic of knowledge. It is from observing reindeer pawing through packed snow to get at the herbs and grasses that led the indigenous peoples to medicinal herbs.
Sadly, scientists have recorded a 40% decline in overall population of wild reindeer and caribou. In the Alaska-Canada region 5 herds have actually declined by 90 percent and are seriously threatened primarily by starvation because of changing climate conditions and extensive habitat loss.Their migration routes for example, some of the longest among mammals, can be easily disrupted.
Reindeer is the only deer species where both male and female reindeer grow antlers. Unlike horns, antlers fall off and grow back larger each year. Males drop their antlers in November, leaving them without antlers until the following spring, while females keep their antlers through the winter until their calves are born in May. Since the reindeer pulling Santa’s sleigh are typically depicted with antlers, we can deduce that Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Cupid, Comet, Donner, Blitzen and even Rudolph were female reindeer.
Coincidently, in early Norse myths, Thor’s chariot was pulled by goats who later transformed into reindeer. Some believe this was the inspiration for Clement C. Moore’s poem Twas the Night Before Christmas in 1824.
- Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer began guiding Santa’s sleigh in 1939, when Robert L. May wrote the story of “the most famous reindeer of all” as a Christmas colouring book to be handed out by a department store, to create more store traffic.
- In 1948, May’s brother-in-law Johnny Marks made the story into a song but wasn’t released as a stand-alone recording until 1949 when Gene Autry recorded it and the song’s popularity soared. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is one of the biggest-selling Christmas songs of all time.
Throughout the millennia, reindeer have symbolized wisdom, resourcefulness, and knowledge. They are honoured for their nobility and representing continuation of the tribe. They inspire confidence and stability. For this reason, animal spirit practitioners call upon the Reindeer spirit guide to help them find inner peace and draw on their inner strength to advance on their personal journey. When reindeer comes into your life, it may be to signal that:
- The long spiritual or emotional journey you have been on is coming to an end and you will soon reap rewards.
- If your journey seems particularly long and arduous, seeking emotional support from others will assist you in succeeding.
The symbolism of reindeer is most inspiring in these challenging times where a global pandemic continues to put obstacles on our path. The appearance of a reindeer – whether in a window display, or as an ornament in a Christmas tree, reminds us that while the road ahead seems dark and daunting, we have the ability to persevere and go the distance.