Monday, 21 December 2020

Flying Reindeer, Little Gerda, and the different histories of Father Christmas and Santa Claus



Re-reading Hans Andersen’s ‘The Snow Queen’ recently, I noticed how in this lovely illustration by Errol le Cain the reindeer turns its antlered head to watch as the Snow Queen stops to lift little Kay into her sleigh. In contrast to the Queen’s smile of welcome (as she opens her fur cloak to envelop Kay), the reindeer’s expression is narrow-eyed, even predatory. Then taking a closer look at the text I realised that in fact Andersen never specifies what animal – if any – draws the Snow Queen’s sleigh. In no matter what translation, the story only says:


One day, while the boys were playing, a great white sleigh came into the square, driven by someone in a thick fur coat and white fur hat. Kay quickly tied his little sled to the big sleigh and began to ride behind.  They went faster and faster, out of the square and … out of the city gates. Kay was afraid and managed to loosen the rope at last. It was no good – the little sledge still sped after the big one; they flew like the wind.


‘They flew like the wind…’ but did they actually fly? I have always assumed they did, but the story doesn’t say so. Then, what about the reindeer little Gerda rides, the one given to her by the robber girl to take her north, and north, and further north? ‘Faster and faster the reindeer ran, day and night alike. The ham and the loaves came to an end – and then they were in Lapland.’ From Lapland the pair run on to Finland, and from there ‘the reindeer ‘ran till he came to the bush with the red berries, and there he set Gerda down’ near the Snow Queen’s palace.’ Nowhere does it say he flew – but surely such a long and magical journey could only be accomplished so swiftly by flight? 


In his wonderful book ‘Reindeer People: Living with Animals and Spirits in Siberia’ (Harper Perennial, 2005) Piers Vitebsky introduces us to the Eveni people whose ancestors migrated from north-east China ‘and spread for thousands of miles across forests and tundra, swamps and mountain ranges, from Mongolia to the Arctic Ocean, from the Pacific almost to the Urals, making them the most widely spread indigenous people on any landmass.’ The animal that made such an immense distribution possible was the reindeer: and Vitebsky, an anthropologist who spent twenty years visiting, living and travelling with a small community of the Eveny people, goes on to describe the significance of this animal: the power of reindeer transport goes far beyond terrestrial journeys. In the 1980s, Vitebky listened as Nomadic elders of the people told his Eveny friend Tolya that:


Reindeer were created by the sky god Hövki, not only to provide food and transport, but also to lift the human soul up to the sun. From their childhood, seventy, eighty or more years before, they remembered a ritual that was carried out each year on Midsummer Day, symbolising the ascent of each person on the back of a winged reindeer.


The elders told how in the ‘white night’ of the Arctic summer a rope would be stretched between two trees to signify a gateway to the sky, and as the sun rose the gateway would be filled with aromatic smoke from two bonfires. The people would circle the fires, anti-clockwise to symbolize the death of the old year, then clockwise to celebrate the birth of the new one: prayers would be said for success in hunting, increase of the reindeer herds, and healthy children. ‘Then each person was said to be borne aloft on the back of a reindeer to a land of happiness and plenty near the sun.’

Vitebsky explains that ‘the association between reindeer and flying is very ancient – much, much older than European or American ideas about Santa Claus.’ More than 3000 years ago, across the steppes of western Mongolia, people were erecting ‘reindeer stones’ either to mark graves – ‘kurgans’ – or else places of ritual celebration and sacrifice. These stones are carved with representations of various animals: the reindeer being far the most frequent.  



Sometimes the deer’s antlers hold a sun-disc, or ‘a human figure with the sun as its head.’ Over a period of about 500 years the reindeer carvings grew more elaborate: their legs stretch into a galloping leap, their bodies are elongated, and they have long flowing antlers whose prongs develop into the beaked heads of birds. 


In a fascinating work ‘Fantastic Beasts of the Eurasian Steppes’, Petya Andreeva of the University of Pennsylvania says it’s possible to track over time how the representation of the reindeer travels ‘out of Northern Mongolia and the Transbaikal … in the direction of Pazyryk valley and the larger Altai region’, undergoing significant changes along the way. ‘The composition of fantastic flying deer diminishes its presence on carved monuments above ground as it reached the Sayan-Altai area, only to find a new life in portable goods which furnish underground burial spaces such as the frozen kurgan mounds of Pazyryk’. Here, the flying deer motif appears (along with other hybrid animals) on furnishings, head-dresses and textiles, and tattoos on the bodies of those interred – all preserved by the water which filled the graves and turned to ice. You can see drawings and photos of the tattoos at this link from The Siberian Times'


The Pazyryk burials date from 500 BC, Vitebsky tells us, but the climate was becoming too dry for reindeer to survive there. However, the animal:


… persisted in the imagination like a mythic or archetypal creature. By the second century AD one of the horses sacrificed in a grave wears a face-mask made of leather, felt and fur and adorned with life-size antlers [see above], clearly dressed up to imitate a reindeer. It seems a reindeer was still better than a horse for riding into the afterlife. Some 1500 years later, in the 17th  century … a Mongolian chronicle tells us that the wife of the Kham Daldyn Bashig Tu rode into battle on ‘a reindeer with branching antlers.’ Since real reindeer had been absent from this region for 2000 years, this probably indicates a continuation of the custom of dressing a horse in a reindeer mask.


Is it pure coincidence that Santa Claus drives a sleigh drawn by flying reindeer? The answer is yes; there is no connection at all. Nor was St Nicholas, who is of course the origin of Santa Claus, though there is no historical evidence for his existence - associated with reindeer or with any other kind of deer. In ‘The Book of Christmas Folklore’ (Seabury Press, 1973) the American folklorist Tristram Potter Coffin (great name!) says there’s no doubt that the 17th century Dutch brought their tradition of the arrival of St Nicholas on December 6 to 'Nieuw Amsterdam', as New York then was. But by the 1820s the saint had been transformed into Santa by the author of the poem we usually call 'The Night Before Christmas' and by the German-born illustrator Thomas Nast. The former is usually considered to be Clement Clarke Moore, but Professor Coffin argues entertainingly that the credit should go to ‘a sometime Major in the Revolution … Henry Livingston Jr, 1748-1828’. Whoever wrote it, the poem provided Santa with a sleigh drawn by reindeer - in place of the white horse and wagon in which he had previously travelled. Thomas Nast popularised the image, producing an annual portrait of the ‘jolly old elf’, but as a staunch Republican and abolitionist, he often utilised it for propaganda.

In this engraving of 1863, in the two roundels we see a wife praying for her husband, a Civil War soldier, while in the upper right corner Santa’s sleigh visits the camps and alights on a house roof to the left. Nast went on producing Santa portraits until 1886: here's his Merry Old Santa Claus of 1881, in which Santa wears an army backpack to draw attention to a campaign for higher wages for soldiers.


As Arctic exploration gripped the imagination of the country, Nast situated Santa’s home at the still unvisited North Pole - thereby closing the circle to meet the flying reindeer of ancient Siberia of which neither he nor the poet could have had the slightest notion.

However! In Britain we have Father Christmas not Santa Claus: and Father Christmas has an entirely different history from his American counterpart. For a start, he has no connection with St Nicholas. Rather, he is a spirit or personification of the festive season: on St Thomas’s Day (then held on December 21st, the winter solstice) a man dressed as ‘Father Yule’ would ride through the city of York carrying a loaf of bread and a leg of lamb, until the custom was suppressed in 1572 by an annoyed Archbishop. We’re not told what Father Yule rode on, or drew him along: but see below. In masques and entertainments throughout the Tudor period, a ‘Captain Christmas’ or a ‘Sir Christmas’ might appear, and in a court masque of 1638 in which Shrovetide and Christmas vie for precedence, Christmas appears as ‘an old reverend Gentleman in a furr’d gown and cap’ who proclaims ‘I am the King of good cheere and feasting, though I come but once a yeare to raigne over baked, boyled, roast and plum-porridge…’

During the Interregnum following the English Civil War, the Puritans did their best to suppress Christmas, which – or whom – they portrayed as a popish relic. In a pamplet of 1658, ‘The Triall and Examination of Old Father Christmas’ (the earliest recorded use of that version of his name) the author Josiah King defends Christmas and the jury acquits. This was bold, for the restoration of the monarchy was still two years in the future. It seems to have taken Christmas a couple of centuries fully to recover from the Puritan suppression: when he does turn up again, he rides on a goat. In 1836 Thomas Hervey, later editor of the Athenaeum, wrote in 'The Book of Christmas’ how:

Old Father Christmas, at the head of his numerous and uproarious family, might ride his goat through the streets of the city and the lanes of the village, but he dismounted to sit for a few moments by each man’s hearth…

The illustration by Robert Seymour shows Father Christmas in a fur gown, crowned with holly and riding a goat. Apart from the unsettling way in which both he and the goat are regarding us (to say nothing of the bodiless head tucked under his arm) Seymour's Old Father Christmas is a clear influence on the classic illustration of the Ghost of Christmas Present, crowned with holly and wearing a furred gown – green like that of the Green Knight, another winter spirit – surrounded by a feast complete with plum pudding and wassail bowl.


And of course the Yule goat takes us right back to pagan times again. The Norse god Thor rode in a chariot pulled by two goats, which he could slaughter, devour and restore to life. Another goat, Heiðrún, stands on the roof of the gods’ hall Valhalla, nibbling the leaves of the tree Læraðr (which may be another name for Yggdrasil, the World Tree). Her udders run with mead which collects in a basin beneath her. A deer is her companion, the hart Eikþyrnir; he bites the branches while his horns drip water that is the fount of all rivers. As you can see in this charming 18th century illustration, these are clearly life-giving animals. (I love the flag with VH for Valhalla on the peak of the hall.)


Could there be any connection between the goat upon which Father Christmas rides, the goats which pull Thor’s chariot, the goat on the roof of Valhalla – and the flying reindeer of the Siberian shamans? Probably not, even if goat and reindeer are both semi-domesticated horned animals, both valued for transport and food, both connected with the otherworld... but it’s worth pondering. Happy Christmas! Merry Yule!



Picture credits:

The Snow Queen, by Errol le Cain

Gerda and the Reindeer, by Boris Diodorev

Deer stones from Uushiglin-uver in the Mongolian province of Khövsgol -Wikipedia 

A gilded wooden figurine from the Pazyryk burials, c. 5th century BCE - Wikipedia 

Griffin holding in its jaws  a reindeer whose antlers are tipped with beaked bird-heads: Pazyryk, late 4th - early 3rd century BCE. Huntingdon Archive for Buddhist and Related Art.   

Mask with antlers for a horse's head:Pazyryk Barrow No. 1(excavations by M.P. Gryaznov, 1929). Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

Santa Claus - two images by Thomas Nast, plus article: Smithsonian Magazine 

Father Christmas in fur gown, crowned with holly and riding a goat - by Robert Seymour, British Library

The stag Eikþyrnir and the goat Heiðrún on top of  Valhalla: Icelandic Manuscript, SÁM 66, Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies

Gerda and the Reindeer: from The Snow Queen - by Errol le Cain






  1. What beautiful carved stones, and fascinating tattoos. One on the back looks like a ring tailed lemur!
    Nothing to do with your post but my friend Sally and I used to attend meetings with the local council to discuss parks and open spaces. The meetings were held at a golf club absolutely stuffed with honours boards for all their competitions. Many many trophies had been won by members of a family called Pine-Coffin. We were quite transfixed by the wonderful name.

    1. I had a teacher called Pine-Coffin at school in Surrey :-)

    2. Wow, Georgina - and Jane - amazing!

    3. My Pine-Coffins lived near Mill Hill in North London. A once upon a time family of undertakers perhaps?

  2. Father Christmas reminds me also of Dionysus at the feast. Which would follow as It would not have been that long ago that those traditions would have morphed from roman theology to a more christian one over time.

    1. As the bringer of good things to eat and drink - especially drink - yes!