Santa’s Reindeer

Santa’s reindeer are all female and possibly on drugs.

Our primary source of information regarding Santa’s reindeer is the 1823 Clement Clarke Moore poem A Visit from St. Nicholas (aka ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas). As one of the most influential cultural artifacts regarding Santa Claus, the poem tells us that Santa’s sleigh is pulled through the air by eight reindeer. Rudolph, the red-nosed reindeer, is optionally added to the front of the team based on the Robert Lewis May 1939 story.

All Female Crew

Reindeer are a species of deer native to the northernmost regions of the planet. As an Arctic and sub-Arctic animal they are well-suited to assist Santa at the frigid North Pole even though they are not naturally found at the pole. Reindeer (or caribou as they are known in North America) graze primarily on lichen which is found a bit south of the North Pole. Their ability to see ultraviolet light, an ability beyond our human visual spectrum, allow reindeer to spot food, predators, and mates more easily amongst the highly reflective snow.

Christmas greeting card from 1921 featuring Santa and his flying antlered reindeer.

In pop-culture Santa’s reindeer are almost always depicted as having antlers. Both male and female reindeer grow, shed, and regrow their antlers. Male reindeer shed their antlers around November, female reindeer in late May. Given this time frame, all of Santa’s antlered reindeer must be female.

As for Rudolph, who would confusingly be a female reindeer with a male name, his/her red nose could be attributed to the reindeer nasal system which contains nasoturbinal bones. This system of curled bones increases the surface area with thin tissue inside reindeer noses which helps to warm air on the way in and recapture moisture when breathing out. It may not be glowing red, but for ordinary reindeer their noses are an evolutionary feature that enable them to live in harsh winter conditions.

The Amanita muscaria, aka the Fly Agaric mushroom, is the iconic mushroom featured throughout pop culture, which is native to Northern Europe.

Magic Mushrooms

In any of the original stories of Saint Nicholas his mode of transportation would have been a horse or a donkey. The introduction of reindeer moves the story, and Santa Claus, to the frosty areas of Northern Europe/Asia. As for flying reindeer, the ability to fly is not commonly found in reindeer. One theory for this association comes from the shamanistic religions of these northern cultures.

Due to the historically migratory nature of Laplanders they did not have a regular supply of alcohol until the recent past. It would have been fairly cumbersome to move alcohol production on a regular basis, let alone the challenge of keeping the yeast alive & active in the extreme cold. So instead as a way to come closer to God, or just go out of their minds, they had the Amanita muscaria, aka the Fly Agaric, aka hallucinogenic mushrooms.

On its own the Fly Agaric is hallucinogenic but poisonous. To reduce the toxic poisonous effects, but still get the hallucinogenic benefit, you have to process them. Outside of just eating lichen, reindeer will also eat the Fly Agaric mushroom. The people of these northern regions learned you could “process” the mushrooms through the reindeer. After the animals had eaten the mushrooms people would collect and ingest the reindeer urine to receive the psychoactive benefits of the mushrooms with less of the toxic effects. Interestingly they would also “process” the mushrooms through other humans, which has a long (and fairly disgusting) history of people drinking the urine of others to get high.

As for flying reindeer, when the reindeer are high on the mushrooms their movements are erratic (but not flying). When humans are on the mushrooms however, they have reported taking shamanistic journeys with winged reindeer transporting them to the highest branches of the World Tree. Less dramatically, sitting around high on mushrooms, people thought their reindeer were flying before their eyes.

Added info: The reindeer ability to see ultraviolet is a feature shared with their deer relatives. As such, for hunters wearing new blue jeans, deer probably see you coming long before you see them, negating any orange or camouflage you may be wearing on the rest of your body. The blue hues of new jeans stand out as especially vibrant for animals who can see ultraviolet.

Charles Dickens and the Little Ice Age

Charles Dickens spent most of his life in the “Little Ice Age” where his earliest Christmases were snowy, which influenced later pop culture.

The Little Ice Age was a several hundred year period of unusually cold weather around parts of the Northern Hemisphere. Depending on how you want to define it, the period ran from either the 1300s or 1500s to around 1850. There are various suggested causes for this cold weather, but the result was cooler summers and especially cold winters.

In England the winters could get so cold that the River Thames would freeze over. Over the centuries there were 24 times when the river was solid enough to host the River Thames frost fair, a winter celebration on the frozen river complete with vendors, dancing, sports, and more. The last such festival was in 1814 during which they walked an elephant across the frozen river.

Bob Cratchit carrying Tiny Tim in a snowy London from A Christmas Carol

Charles Dickens

Born in 1812 in the south of England, Dickens’s family moved to London in 1815. As part of the Little Ice Age, the first 8 Christmases of Dickens’s life were snowy white Christmases. At a developmental stage in his life these white Christmases had a significant influence on Dickens’s idea of what Christmas should be. Dickens included a white Christmas in several stories, the first of which was 1836’s The Pickwick Papers and later, and most famously, in 1843’s A Christmas Carol.

The enormous popularity of A Christmas Carol, and the popularity of Dickens in general, greatly influenced our western cultural idea of what Christmas should be. It helped revive the celebration of Christmas in Britain, which had been on the decline during the Industrial Revolution. Snowy white landscapes, crackling fires, hot meals, mulled wine, mistletoe, wrapped packages, carols & merriment, it all became part of the ideal Christmas.

The 1942 movie Holiday Inn gave us the hit song White Christmas sung by Bing Crosby. The 1954 movie White Christmas (seen above) also featured Bing Crosby singing White Christmas.

Our idea of a snowy white Christmas is directly linked to the staying power of Charles Dickens and that, for a young Dickens, Christmas was always white. After the Little Ice Age ended southern England has not see many white Christmases. Today there is around a 9% probability of a white Christmas in London, but the idea of a snowy Christmas persists. The 1942 movie Holiday Inn, which gave us the hit song White Christmas sung by Bing Crosby, only furthered the Dickens idea of a snowy Christmas.

Jingle Bells

The hell-raising sleigh song that became a Christmas standard.

Jingle Bells was published in 1857 under the title One Horse Open Sleigh. It wasn’t until it was reissued in 1859 that it got the title we know today. It was written by James Lord Pierpont, the uncle of Wall Street titan John Pierpont Morgan (aka. J.P. Morgan). By all accounts James Pierpont was a pretty awful person. He lived for adventure, traveled the world, abandoned his family, didn’t attend his first wife’s funeral nor did he care for their children after she died, he fought for the south in the Civil War despite being from an abolitionist family in Massachusetts, etc. But he did write one of the most famous Christmas songs of all time despite the fact that the song isn’t about Christmas.

Risqué High-Speed Sleigh Riding

Jingle Bells is one of several Christmas favorites that have nothing to do with Christmas. The lyrics & melody changed within Pierpont’s lifetime but in general the song is about a sleigh ride. Looking to the lesser known additional lyrics the song is specifically about getting away from the watchful eyes of the people in town and a boy taking a girl out for a secluded sleigh ride. The song then has the protagonist relaying his story to other guys and telling them to pick up girls in their sleighs and have a good time while they’re young.

These lyrics were most likely influenced by where & when Pierpont wrote the song. At the time the town of Medford, Massachusetts (where he wrote the song) had a strong winter sleigh racing scene. It was also a rum producing city. People would race their sleighs at top speed (frequently while drunk) down Salem Street. It was like a drunker 19th century version of American Graffiti. Today the town of Medford has a plaque commemorating the song and says the song is about sleigh racing. None of this is very Christmasy.

The Sleigh Race“, Currier & Ives, lithograph, 1859

Jingle Bells … In Space

While in space for the 1965 Gemini 6 project, astronauts Tom Stafford and Wally Schirra snuck sleigh bells and a harmonica aboard the capsule. Alluding to Santa Claus, on December 16th they reported seeing “… a satellite going from north to south, up in a polar orbit.” They then proceeded to play Jingle Bells to an initially very confused mission control. Their instruments were the first every played in outer space and are now in the Smithsonian.

During the mid 1960s the song began to take-on alternate lyrics, the most famous of which is the Batman themed parody. The Batman Smells version seems to have started around the time of the original Adam West television show. Australia has Aussie Jingle Bells to better align to the summer heat of Christmas down under.

Added info: the titular “jingle” doesn’t refer to a type of bell, but rather it is a verb telling you to jingle/shake bells. Sleighs can run fairly silent on snow and so jingling bells are a safety feature serving as an audible signal that you are approaching.

Real or Plastic Trees?

Real pine trees are environmentally friendlier than artificial plastic trees unless you reuse an artificial tree for many years.

The case for real trees

Christmas trees are grown on farms like any other cash crop. These trees provide environmental benefits such as cleaning the air, and the very presence of these farms prevents commercial development of the land. Also, once a tree is cut down, another will be planted to replace it keeping plants in existence. Tree farms, unlike manufactured artificial trees, provide local jobs helping the immediate community.

After the season is over pine trees can have a second life as a host of things. Some zoos take Christmas trees because the animals enjoy playing with, and eating, the trees. Most municipalities have some sort of recycling program for trees. NYC has a mulchfest where they recycle old trees providing the city with valuable mulch. Even the Rockefeller tree gets recycled into lumber for Habitat for Humanity homes.

The case for artificial trees

As of 2017, 95 million US households displayed a Christmas tree, and of those 81% were artificial. Artificial trees are frequently made in China with PVC plastic and metal. In addition to the petroleum they are made from, petroleum is burned to ship them to a store near you, and you burn even more petroleum to drive to that store. Even worse, if you decide after a few years you don’t want it anymore, the “tree” becomes that much more plastic in a landfill since most plastic is never recycled. None of this is environmentally friendly.

The primary benefit of an artificial tree, is that its environmental cost goes down the more years you use it. Once you own it there isn’t any fossil fuel involved in getting it out of storage every year (unlike the annual drive to go get a real tree). How many years you need to use an artificial tree for its benefits to outweigh its detractions is debatable. The low-end estimate is 8 years but the high-end estimate is more than 20 years – so it takes 1-2 decades for an artificial tree to become more environmentally sustainable than a real pine tree.

The verdict

The best tree is the real tree you can buy close to your own home from a local tree farm in your region. Only if you plan on using an artificial tree for many years will it become the more sustainable option.