Skip to main content

How Santa got his reindeer

By Laura Galloway, Special to CNN
December 23, 2012 -- Updated 1351 GMT (2151 HKT)
Santa Claus, or his spitting image, posing with an authentic reindeer in Finland last year.
Santa Claus, or his spitting image, posing with an authentic reindeer in Finland last year.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Reindeer are a way of life for the Sami people of Northern Europe, says Laura Galloway
  • An Alaskan missionary helped bring reindeer to North America in the 1800s, she says
  • Galloway: In the 1920s an American businessman tried to popularize reindeer meat
  • His marketing campaign helped create the indelible image of Santa and reindeer, she says

Editor's note: Laura Galloway is a communications entrepreneur and journalist studying Sami culture.

Finnmark, Norway (CNN) -- Millions of people know Clement Clarke Moore's poem "The Night Before Christmas," written in New York in 1822 and believed to describe Santa's mode of transportation, a reindeer-driven sleigh, for the first time. But Santa's reindeer have a story and a history all of their own, one tied to the oldest indigenous culture in Northern Europe and accelerated by an American entrepreneur whose principal intention was not delighting children around the world, but creating an appetite for what he hoped would become a mealtime staple as ubiquitous as beef.

For thousands of years here in the snowy Arctic of northern Norway, reindeer have been a symbol and a way of life for the Sami, Northern Europe's oldest surviving indigenous people, spanning parts of Norway, Finland, Sweden and the Kola Peninsula of Russia, in an area that is known as Sapmi. (They are also called Laplanders.) About 10 percent of Samis still herd, with the bulk of the reindeer population found in Kautokeino and Karasjok, Norway, where even today the reindeer are herded up into the mountains for the long winter and brought down again in spring.

The Sami are some of the most tenacious people on earth -- the cowboys and cowgirls of the tundra, deeply in tune with nature and able to deftly move and guide huge herds of animals during brutal winters over vast expanses. To many, there are no better herders in the world.

Laura Galloway
Laura Galloway

Reindeer first came to Alaska, via Siberia, through the work of an Alaskan missionary named Sheldon Jackson. In the mid-1800s, many Inuit were starving due to the commercial overfishing of whales, the core of the Inuit diet, for whale oil. Consumed with the idea finding an alternative food source for this culture, Jackson turned to the idea of reindeer herding and husbandry.

Thanks to Jackson's lobbying, the U.S. government agreed, appropriating funds to support seeding the plan by knowledge transfer of expert herders to the Inuit, starting with a short-lived attempt with Siberians, and later, the Sami. And so in 1898, more than 100 Sami reindeer herders and their families, and nearly 600 reindeer, made the passage from the north of Norway to the United States, ending up in Alaska to introduce reindeer herding, Sami style, to America.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



While reindeer are at the heart of traditional Sami culture, the idea of a jolly, gift-giving Santa Claus flying around with his herd has no part in their history or tradition. The two ideas collided in popular culture via a businessman in Alaska named Carl Lomen. When the reindeer came to Alaska and began to flourish, Lomen, a native of Minnesota, saw the commercial, mass-market possibilities of reindeer meat and fur for the United States and sought to promote it aggressively.

Lomen was as much a clever marketer as a businessman, and in 1926 he conceived, along with Macy's department store, a promotional Christmas parade led by Santa, his reindeer, a sleigh and several Sami herders in their vibrant traditional dress.

Eventually, similar parades were held in cities around the country, and a meme was born. Lomen is said to have further accelerated his marketing efforts by planting fake children's letters in local newspapers, the fictitious children asking for Santa and his reindeer to visit their towns.

The cold water of Barcelona's Port Vell doesn't deter this swimmer dressed up as St. Nick from joining in the Copa Nadal swimming race, a traditional holiday event in the Spanish seaport, on Tuesday, December 25. The cold water of Barcelona's Port Vell doesn't deter this swimmer dressed up as St. Nick from joining in the Copa Nadal swimming race, a traditional holiday event in the Spanish seaport, on Tuesday, December 25.
Santa sightings around the world
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
>
>>
Photos: Santa sightings around the world Photos: Santa sightings around the world
Signing Santa brings big smile to child
Track Santa with your smartphone

In the 1920s, the Lomen Reindeer Co. owned more than a quarter-million reindeer, and Lomen became known as "the reindeer king." But reindeer meat never took off in America for many reasons, most notably pressure from the cattle lobby and changes in laws about who could own reindeer in the U.S. -- the right eventually going in 1937 to indigenous American cultures, excluding even the Sami. (The law was reversed 60 years later.)

Lomen's company was forced out of the reindeer business as a result, but his marketing efforts unleashed a worldwide obsession with Santa and created a common narrative now known around the world, and even elaborated on: Rudolph, the most famous reindeer of all, was not based in mythology or literature stemming from an indigenous culture, but was instead concocted as a character in a coloring book distributed in 1939 by the now-defunct Montgomery Ward department stores.

As a Sami descendant, I became curious about the origin of Santa and his gang of reindeer last year on the Arctic tundra, where I experienced firsthand how difficult it can be to rig up even one reindeer. Forget flying. As beautiful and majestic as the reindeer are, they can be skittish, and the idea of rigging eight together and making forward progress seemed ambitious, even in a children's poem.

For a sled, only one reindeer is the Sami tradition, but sometimes more are used when pulling supplies. I've queried many herders about the feasibility of eight reindeer -- it is possible in the right hands, but not common. And these days in Sapmi, the snowmobile has replaced the reindeer for transportation purposes, anyway -- something Santa may want to consider.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Laura Galloway.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0336 GMT (1136 HKT)
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0221 GMT (1021 HKT)
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1228 GMT (2028 HKT)
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 2033 GMT (0433 HKT)
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0442 GMT (1242 HKT)
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2043 GMT (0443 HKT)
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0858 GMT (1658 HKT)
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2245 GMT (0645 HKT)
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1700 GMT (0100 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2301 GMT (0701 HKT)
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1335 GMT (2135 HKT)
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 0208 GMT (1008 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1125 GMT (1925 HKT)
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 2004 GMT (0404 HKT)
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1307 GMT (2107 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 2250 GMT (0650 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
October 11, 2014 -- Updated 1543 GMT (2343 HKT)
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT