Skip to main content

How Santa got his reindeer

By Laura Galloway, Special to CNN
updated 8:51 AM EST, Sun December 23, 2012
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
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 10:14 AM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
updated 2:51 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
updated 6:07 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
updated 4:12 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
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
updated 11:36 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
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
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
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.
updated 10:21 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
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.
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
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
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
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
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
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.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
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.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
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
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
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
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
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
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
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
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
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?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
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
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT