Should Santa's Reindeer Really be Caribou?
Ro Wauer, December 21, 2003, The Victoria Advocate, © 2003
Christmas and reindeer became forevermore united with the memorable words of Clement Moore, "Twas the Night Before Christmas," that introduced the fleet-footed, high-flying companions of Saint Nicholas - Dancer, Prancer, Cupid, Vixen, and the rest. Rudolph with his red nose appeared on the scene long afterwards. No one is quite sure how Santa found his way before the appearance of the most magnificent reindeer of all.
Yet, much of the world, at least those folks living within the Arctic Circle, have been utilizing reindeer long before Clement Moore. The Northern Indians and Eskimos used reindeer much like the North American Indians utilized bison (buffalo); meat and bone marrow for food, hides for clothing and shelter, bones for tools, etc. Although there are no records of when reindeer were first domesticated, reference to a domesticated reindeer appeared in Chinese literature in AD 499. Siberians trained them to pull sleds and for riding.
Although the Old World reindeer were tamed, reindeer, known as caribou in the New World, could not be tamed. Yet, the two genetically are the same, both listed by mammologists in the genus Rangifer. It is unique in the ungulate world because it is the only deer in which both sexes bear antlers, although those of females are somewhat smaller. Even fawns have small spikes that appear two months after birth. Bulls drop their antlers in early winter; does drop theirs in May. And second, it is the only deer that socializes in tremendous herds; a herd of 25 million animals was once recorded in Alaska.
Caribou/reindeer antlers are rather unique in themselves. The beams and brow tines sweep out in almost a semi-circle, and those of the males are semi-palmated (like a spoon), especially the single, flat brow tine that extends down almost to the nose. Their hooves are splayed (like a moose) for walking on snow and ice. Such structures cause minimum damage to the moist tundra, especially important during mass migrations. Their coat is brown with white or gray on the lower parts and on a buttock patch. Height of North American animals is about 50 inches to the shoulder, and it can weigh up to 500 pounds. Old World reindeer are somewhat smaller.
Migratory caribou calve on the tundra in summer, and they winter in sparse forests to the south. They feed principally on "reindeer moss" that becomes covered with deep snow and ice on their summer range, the reason for making the mass movements southward in fall. They are able to dig through moderate snow and ice for food, principally with their feet, but are unable to dig through packed ice.
North American caribou are divided into three groups: Woodland caribou, from the boreal forests and alpine tundra, is the largest. Barren ground caribou uses tiaga forests and tundra and is medium in size. Pearly caribou from high Arctic islands is smaller with shorter legs, face, and ears, and lighter coloration. Woodland caribou once ranged as far south as the United States, but the last Maine caribou was killed in 1901.
Clement Moore, a bible professor at New York's General Theological Seminary, wrote his poem - "A Visit from Saint Nicholas" - as a gift to his children in 1822. But, the obvious question is why Old World reindeers and not New World caribou? Probably, Clement didn't know one from the other. But he was inspired by a plump, bearded Dutchman who took him by sleigh on his errands throughout the snow-covered streets of New York. And as a scholar, he probably drew on the Dutch-American and Norwegian traditions of a magical, gift-giving figure who appeared at Christmas time. And maybe he had read of the German legend of a visitor bearing gifts who entered homes through chimneys.
After all is said and done, Clement Moore was more familiar with reindeer than caribou.