Here's Why It's Rudolph the "Red-Nosed" Reindeer

Reindeer are real animals (they're related to deer, elk, and moose), but they only became synonymous with the holiday season after two Christmas poems in the 1800s and two department-store campaigns in the 20th century.

Reindeer Games

You know how the classic Christmas poem goes:

"Now, Dasher! Now, Dancer! Now, Prancer and Vixen!

On, Comet! On, Cupid! On, Donner and Blitzen!"

But why reindeer? Well, reindeer, also known as caribou, live in cold climates, and they often pull sleighs. Their noses can even turn red in cold weather (looking at you, Rudolph). That's probably why William Gilley included them in the story he published in an 1821 children's booklet: "Old Santeclaus with much delight, his reindeer drives this frosty night." He was inspired by the reindeer from his mother's homeland in the Arctic. After that, Clement Clarke Moore authored the famous poem "The Night Before Christmas." His poem was originally called "A Visit From St Nicholas" and described Santa's sleigh as miniature, lead by "eight tiny reindeer." Because how else would he fit down those chimneys?

Won't You Drive Our Sales Tonight?

The way reindeer became commercialized is a somewhat less wholesome story. Entrepreneur Carl Lomen was known as "The Reindeer King" of Alaska because of his part in the development of Alaska's reindeer industry — an industry that was definitely not about the animals pulling sleighs, if you catch our drift. To make reindeer (and by proxy, reindeer meat) more popular, he teamed up with Macy's in 1926 to really bring the now-famous Christmas lore of reindeer to life.

The department store featured perhaps the first holiday display containing Santa, a sleigh, and real reindeer. In 1939, an advertising copywriter named Robert L. May worked with his four-year-old daughter Barbara to tell Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer's story for the old Montgomery Ward department store's promotional coloring book handouts. The story was almost shut down because May's boss thought Rudolph's "red as a beet ... twice as bright" nose implied he had been drinking.

In reality, caribou and reindeer help keep their faces warm while rooting for food in the snow by activating extra capillaries in their noses — capillaries that are 25 percent more numerous than those in humans. So not only are reindeer real, but Rudolph is too. Sort of. And the size of the reindeer? While they're not "tiny," they are getting smaller. Maybe one day they'll be able to fit down your chimney, after all.

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Learn more Christmas lore in "Stories Behind the Great Traditions of Christmas" by Ace Collins. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Anna Todd December 18, 2017

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