Our friends deliver “reindeer food” (oats mixed with glitter) to us every year so that the kids can sprinkle it on the lawn on Christmas Eve. The people down the street have decorations out front that say “Santa, Land Here,” with red and green pseudo-landing-strip lights along their front walk. But where does the idea of flying reindeer really come from?
A while back I read Piers Vitebsky’s The Reindeer People (see my review). Vitebsky writes from an anthropological, historical and personal perspective about the Eveny and Evenki people of Siberia.
Probably the most important aspect of their traditional culture is their relationship with reindeer. They rely on this partially domesticated animal for food, of course, but also for transportation. Thousands of years ago the ancestors of the Eveny and Evenki trained reindeer to carry them and pull their sleighs. During the winters, when the land was frozen “from Mongolia to the Arctic Ocean, from the Pacific almost to the Urals,” reindeer could travel great distances. Vitebsky testifies that their speed, especially when traveling over frozen bodies of water, is amazing, almost like flying.
But how does this connect with Christmas and Santa’s flying reindeer?
Vitebsky describes a traditional Midsummer ritual among the Eveny, in which people rode reindeer through a symbolic “gateway to the sky” between two larch trees. He continues:
As the sun rose high above the horizon in the early dawn, this gateway was filled with the purifying smoke of the aromatic mountain rhododendron, which drifted over the area from two separate bonfires. Each person passed around the first fire anti-clockwise, against the direction of the sun, to symbolize the death of the old year and to burn away its illnesses. They then moved around the second fire in a clockwise direction, following the sun’s own motion, to symbolize the birth of the new year.
Prayers were offered to the sun. Then, in a ritual that would bring renewal, each person rode a reindeer through the gateway up to a land near the sun. The reindeer were thus not only valued for transport and sustenance here on earth, but also as a way of reaching the source of life itself, and a way of attaining the blessings of life. Vitebsky explains that at the highest point in their flight, “the reindeer turned for a while into a crane, a bird of extreme sacredness.”
That these ideas are very, very old is proven by the existence of ‘reindeer stones.” These standing stones date from the Bronze Age (about 3,000 years ago) and can be found from western Mongolia to Manchuria. Other animals are represented, but reindeer predominate and they are clearly portrayed as flying: “…neck outstretched and [its] legs flung out fore and aft…the antlers have grown fantastically till they reach right back to the tail, and sometimes hold the disc of the sun or a human figure with the sun as its head.”
Interestingly, even after the area’s climate dried out, making it unsuitable for reindeer, its inhabitants still looked upon the animal as a mythical link with the supernatural: reindeer figured in legends and their imagery showed up in grave goods and in the tattoos of the Pazyryk people, where “the branching of the reindeers’ antlers sometimes looks like the feathering of birds’ wings, and on some of them each tine of the antler ends in a tiny bird’s head.” Reindeer have also been associated with shamanic voyages.
Somehow along the way, though, it seems they got mixed up with Germanic pagan traditions of Odin, himself linked with shamanism, who was said to ride an eight-legged, flying horse and lead hunting parties through the northern sky in the winter, evidenced by the aurora borealis. Later came Christian traditions of St. Nicholas, whose feast day, December 6, is near to the winter solstice and who, like Odin, had a along beard and rode a flying horse. British legends of Father Christmas (a later incarnation of the gift-giving St. Nicholas) has him living in Lapland, a land of reindeer with a strong cultural connection to Siberia. How this all came to be is mysterious; it is a demonstration of the amazing way that traditions and legends are woven over time.
It also leaves us free to choose the strands that are most meaningful to us.
Winter solstice celebrations in northern countries have everything to do with renewal and rebirth, with the petitioning of the sun to return and once again bestow its blessings on the earth and its people. Last night, the longest night of the year, we attended a solstice party where a bonfire, good food and the conversation of friends served as symbols of the return of light and life to the earth.
I hope that your version of flying reindeer will bring you to a state of renewal during this dark season which, as of yesterday’s solstice, grows lighter and brighter every day.