About us: We own the Wild Birds Unlimited nature shop in East Lansing, Michigan,
a store that provides a wide variety of supplies to help you enjoy the birdwatching hobby.

This blog was created to answer frequently asked questions & to share nature stories and photographs.
To contribute, email me at bloubird@gmail.com.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

When did Reindeer Learn to Fly?

A gilded wooden figurine of a deer from the Pa...Image via WikipediaReindeer have actually been associated with flying for thousands of years. They are phenomenally adaptable and uniquely designed to handle extreme fluctuation in temperature and can live in regions that are well below freezing.

In tombs excavated in the Pazyryk Valley of the Ukok plateau in the Altai Mountains, Siberia that were dated between the 6th and 3rd centuries BCE, designs were found of reindeers with antlers that looked like they were designed to give the deer even more lift than a bird. There were fantastic carved beasts, ancient pile carpets, and mummies with tattoos all with the same motif.

Also ancient hymns written between 1500 - 500 BCE talk about the reindeer that could fly after eating magic mushrooms. Amanita muscaria, commonly known as the fly agaric is a red fungus with white dots that has always been a popular icon for the Midwinter and Christmas festivities in central Europe. The Amanita muscaria mushrooms grow only under certain types of trees, mostly firs and evergreens.

The semi-nomadic ancient peoples, including the Lapps of modern-day Finland, and the Koyak tribes of the central Russian steppes considered the reindeer sacred. Local tradition talks about how shaman wearing a red and white fur-trimmed coats and long black boots gathered the red and white mushrooms in a bag and then came down the smokehole in the top of the yurt. He passed out the mushrooms for the people to string up in front of the fire to dry. Then the people used the mushrooms to draw the reindeer near. Under the influence, the reindeer would prance and fly around until they became exhausted.

Finally a poem in the Sentinel newspaper on December 23, 1823 called "A Visit from St. Nicholas",  was the first recorded sighting of the flying reindeer in the U.S. It talked about how St. Nick visited once a year, his mode of transportation, and even the number and names of his reindeer. I’ve reprinted the beginning of the newspaper report below:

"A Visit from St. Nicholas"

Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St Nicholas soon would be there.

The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads.
And mamma in her ‘kerchief, and I in my cap,
Had just settled our brains for a long winter’s nap.

When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from the bed to see what was the matter.
Away to the window I flew like a flash,
Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash.

The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow
Gave the lustre of mid-day to objects below.
When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny reindeer.

With a little old driver, so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment it must be St Nick.
More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name!

"Now Dasher! now, Dancer! now, Prancer and Vixen!
On, Comet! On, Cupid! on, on Donner and Blitzen!
To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!
Now dash away! Dash away! Dash away all!"

For the full story go to:  http://www.nyise.org/moore/twas.html
Related article: Questions and Antlers about Santa's Reindeer

1. Mythology and Folklore of Fly Agaric: http://www.treesforlife.org.uk/forest/mythfolk/flyagaric.html
2. Pazyryk burials http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pazyryk_burials
3. A Visit from St. Nicholas http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Visit_from_St._Nicholas

Important Note
Amanita muscaria, the Fly Agaric is a poisonous mushroom whose effects are very unpredictable. It can be fatal in large doses and experimentation is definitely not to be recommended.