Mankind is believed to have stalked and hunted reindeer herds for at least 270,000 years. Archeological digs have revealed that Neanderthals ate reindeer for food 40,000 years. Images of reindeer have been found on 15,000-year-old cave paintings.

Reindeer were domesticated from wild reindeer (caribou) in northern Eurasia. When this took place is unknown. Reindeer are believed to have been domesticated between 5,000 and 7,000 years ago. Two forms of reindeer husbandry evolved. One on the open tundra where reindeer are gathered into large herds and moved between winter and summer pastures and other in the forest, where the animals are more difficult to supervise and herders manage smaller herds and supplements their diet with fish and other game.

Reindeer are difficult animals to ride but they can be harnessed and used to pull sleds or sledges. If you try to ride a reindeer, sit on the shoulders. If you sit on the back the animal will collapse under you. In Arctic regions and places with snow on the ground for long periods of time, reindeer are used to pull sleighs. They are strong enough to pulls sleighs with loads of 140 kilograms over frozen ground or snow for nine or ten miles an hour for several hours. Castrated reindeer are used as draft animals. Reindeer are often more efficient as transport animals in rugged country than horses.

Clothing, blanket, harnesses and other items are made from reindeer hide. Tight sinews are used for thread. Early autumn skins are prized for inter parkers consisting of an inner parka with the hair inside and an outer parka with the hair outside. Eskimos wore caribou-skin loincloths and caribou-skin socks with hair inside and caribou-skin boots with hair outside.

Reindeer are raised mainly for meat, hides, transportation and ability to pull loaded sleds. They are not good milk producers. While their milk is sweet ad creamy it is low in butterfat. Plus, a female reindeer produces only a pint of milk a day at most. White reindeer are greatly prized. They are regarded as a sign of wealth.

Reindeer Herding

Many indigenous Siberian and Arctic people raise reindeer. Most reindeer herders in the taiga are seminomadic. They move among seasonal camps to make sure the food supply for their reindeer and the themselves is not depleted in a single area. With the onset of spring some Arctic tribes have traditionally dismantled their reindeer tents and erected fabric houses. [Source: Yuri Rytkheu, National Geographic, February 1983 ☒]

Reindeer herders in the tundra are more nomadic as they more or less follow seasonal migrations of their animals as if they were wild animals. Reindeer herds 12,000 strong have been observed moving at a rate of 20 miles a day. Reindeer herders, such as the Lapps, do not herd these wild animals like cows or sheep, rather they follow them though the natural migrations. Among some groups, reindeer are allowed top browse on their own all day but will return to tents for a salt lick.

Among most reindeer herding people men are responsible for taking care of the animals while women stay close to the camps, preparing food, sewing clothes and maintaining the tents. “Narty” are light and durable sledges held together with straps rather than nails. They are somewhat difficult to drive and steer. These many herder use snowmobiles and motorcycles.

Raising reindeer is quite profitable. They animals do not require expensive stabling and are self sufficient in finding food all year. When they mature they can survive the harshest frosts, rains, winds, and prolonged cold. They can graze the most meager pastures and still build up a thick enough layer of fat to survive the long cruel winter. ☒

There are around 4 million reindeer in Russia. The Soviets considered nomadism to be "uncivilized" and forced many reindeer herders into villages in the 1950s and tried to teach them Russian. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, reindeer herds plummeted. Subsidies that helped sustain the animals were cut off. Reindeer began starving when ice covered the lichens they foraged and they couldn't break through and there was no supplemental food they could eat.

Reindeer and Ethnic Groups

The Nenets have traditionally relied on reindeer for almost everything. Reindeer pull their sleds, supply fur for the coats and tents, provide them with meat and even give them their identity. Babies and deceased people are wrapped in reindeer skins,. Reindeer bones are used for buttons and knife handles and tendons are made into thread. The exceptionally warm skins are made into boats, legging, hats and other items of clothing.

Reindeer antlers bring in hard currency from Asia where they are crushed into a powder and taken as an aphrodisiac and a form of traditional Chinese medicine. Reindeer meat is stored in wooden chests that serve as freezers. Nenets consider fresh reindeer blood to be a delicacy and like to eat reindeer meat raw. The main events of spring festival are reindeer races.

Nenet herders have a close bond with their lead reindeer. If they get lost in a blizzard they rely on the lead reindeer to help them find their way. If the animal hesitates or sneezes while crossing a frozen river, the herder will look for a different place to cross.

See Evenki, Khanty, Nenets Under People of the Arctic and the Lapps (Sami) and Komi Under PEOPLE IN NORTHWEST RUSSIA Under Minorities of Russia and EWENKI AND THEIR HISTORY and EWENKI LIFE AND CULTURE Under Minorities of Northern China Under China.

Reindeer Meat

Reindeer meat is tender, succulent, chewy and gamy and sticks to the throat. It is considered a delicacy in Scandinavian countries and is priced higher than beef and is usually eaten smoked or roasted. Lapps make a descent living supplying the market.

One herder told the Swedish writer Staffan Widtsrand in the early autumn, "We only take the fattest animals, because their meat has more energy. This time of the year, the old bulls are best, but in a couple of weeks, they start their rut. Then, you can't eat them, so then we take the younger males instead. During the winter the cows are the fattest, and then of course we take them."

In the late 1980s, around 6.6 million pounds of reindeer meat worth $24 million was produced annually in Finland. This was equivalent to two percent of total meat sales in Finland.

Reindeer meat is prepared a number of ways. You can get smoked reindeer meat, air-dried reindeer meat, reindeer stew, reindeer capriccio, reindeer burgers, moose and smoked reindeer and horseradish sauce, salted smoked reindeer, sauteed reindeer Lapp-style, porotournedos (tournedos or reindeer meat) and spiced reindeer meat sliced as thin as prosciuto..

Reindeer Sports

Reindeer sledge races feature a sledge harnessed to five reindeer spread like a fan. The reindeer at the left is the leader. The reindeer are steered by a single rein and controlled with a four-meter-long pole. Whether the reindeer gallop or trot depends on the distance and the turns. Most courses are about 1½ kilometer long and required the riders to demonstrate their skill making turns. Men and women compete on equal terms. Some of the greatest champions have been women.

A “tynzei” (lasso) used to lasso reindeer is made of strips of reindeer hide carefully woven together to provide the ideal combination, of toughness, stiffness and flexibility. In a tynzei throwing contest, competitors throw a 20-meter length of rope over a pole and pull it tight from a distance of 15 meters away. Competitors score points each time they successfully lasso the pole. The Komi are especially good at this sport.

In sledge jumping competitions, the sledges are half meter high and a half meter wide. About two dozen of them are placed in a row, with a third of meter between them. Competitors leap over the sledges with both feet. The object is to do it as many times as possible. When the competitors reach the end of the row they turn around and leap over the row again in reverse, and keep going in this manner until they stumble. The winners usually have between 100 and 170 leaps. To be a master you have to jump 75 sledges.

Ax hurling is done with a traditional four-kilogram hand axe that is hurled so it twirls like a propeller and moves with a boomerang effect. The record throw is over 150 meters.

Reindeer and the Modern World

Caribou in North America have never been domesticated but reindeer have been imported from Siberia to provide herds for Eskimos in northern Canada and Alaska. About 1,280 animals were brought to Alaska by the United States Department of Education between 1892 and 1902. Today there are several hundred thousand animals that descended from this herd. Lapps were brought in to teach the Eskimos how to herd the reindeer. Dogs were trained to help protect the reindeer from wolves. Plans to market the meat failed.

Motorists often encounter reindeer on roads in northern Scandinavia and the animals are usually slow to get out of the way. "They're used to cars," one reindeer herder told Reuter. "They take their time and you just have to take yours.”

The reindeer herds of Sweden and Norway were hard hit by the Chernobyl nuclear accident in 1986. The passing of the nuclear cloud happen to coincide with stormy weather and radioactive rain showered the animals’ prime food source, lichen, for several days. As of the early 1990s the lichens still showed high levels of cesium 137 and the reindeer themselves were deemed too radioactive for human consumption. [Source: Charles E. Cobb, National Geographic, April 1989]

Reindeer and Santa Claus

According to the modern Santa Claus story, Santa Claus lives at the North Pole with his toy-making elves and reindeer. On the night before Christmas he travels the world in a flying sled pulled by reindeer and delivers toys to children who have been good. The story contains a few truths about reindeer: they can pull sleds and live in the Arctic sort of near the North Pole. Scientists have speculated that Rudolf's red nose made by the result of an infection caused by one of 20 different parasites that plague reindeer respiratory tract.

The commonly cited names of Santa’s reindeer the reindeer are Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner, and Blitzen are derived the 1823 poem "A Visit from St. Nicholas" (commonly called "The Night Before Christmas"), which is arguably the basis of reindeer's popularity as Christmas symbols, and in which Donner and Blitzen were originally called Dunder and Blixem respectively. [Source: Wikipedia +]

The relevant segment of the poem reads:

When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
but a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny rein-deer,
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 call'd them by name:
"Now, Dasher! Now, Dancer! Now, Prancer, and Vixen!
"On, Comet! On, Cupid! On, Dunder and Blixem!

"To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!
"Now dash away! dash away! dash away all!"

As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky;
So up to the house-top the coursers they flew “

The enduring popularity of the Christmas song "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" has led to Rudolph often joining Santa’s team of reindeer. Rudolph's story was originally written in verse by Robert L. May for the Montgomery Ward chain of department stores in 1939, and published as a book to be given to children in the store at Christmas time. May's brother-in-law, Johnny Marks, adapted the story of Rudolph into a song. Gene Autry's recording of the song hit No. 1 on the Billboard pop singles chart the week of Christmas 1949. Autry's recording sold 2.5 million copies the first year, eventually selling a total of 25 million, and it remained the second best-selling record of all time until the 1980s. +

Reindeer Dies After Attacking Santa

Reporting from Belle Fourche, South Dakota, Robert Berner wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “A long career in law enforcement failed to prepare Capt. Larry Roberdeau for what he encountered outside a mobile home here one morning in September. "I never saw anything like this," he says. "I came on the scene, and there was a reindeer trying to kill Santa." The man known here as Santa survived unscathed. His reindeer didn't, though. And neither did the popular Christmas image of reindeer cheerfully carrying Santa Claus in his sleigh. Here in Belle Fourche, the reigning image is that of a reindeer furiously stomping around with Santa caught up in its antlers. [Source: Robert Berner , Wall Street Journal, November 28, 1997]

“The Santa in question is James Emery, 40 years old. He owns a backhoe business that digs ditches for septic tanks and such. But he is better known in Belle Fourche (pronounced foosh) for his hobby. Ever since he graduated from high school here in 1975, he has played Santa, and not just at Christmas. This year, he won "Best Float" in the Belle Fourche Fourth of July parade for an entry called "Santa on Vacation." Mr. Emery takes the role of Santa so seriously that much of the year he bleaches white his long red hair and beard.... He stands 6 feet tall, weighs 370 pounds and has the gregarious nature of St. Nick. "He's Santa to everybody in town," resident Terry Arpan says. Two years ago, Mr. Emery took his act a step further and, for $6,500, bought three reindeer. Last Christmas, he parked them in a corral outside the empty storefront on Main Street he used as Santa's headquarters, attracting lots of shoppers downtown.

“Nobody foresaw any reindeer hostilities. His largest beast, a 550-pound bull, was so shy that Mr. Emery's ex-wife named him Casper, after the Friendly Ghost. During last summer's Fourth of July parade, Casper rode calmly atop Mr. Emery's float. "Tame as a kitten," Mr. Emery says. But in early September, Mr. Emery introduced two year-old females to the reindeer herd he keeps in the pasture beside his mobile home. It was mating season, and it didn't occur to him that love would drive Casper mad.

“As Mr. Emery entered the pasture to put grain in the trough at 6:30 one morning, the big bull snorted and attacked. Casper, Mr. Emery now theorizes, feared "I was going to take his two women." To avoid impalement, Mr. Emery grabbed hold of Casper's 4-foot-high, 31-point rack of antlers. The animal lifted his head and for 45 minutes marched around with the big man in his antlers. Then Casper lowered his head and pinned Mr. Emery to the ground. Eventually, Debbie Johnson stepped out of the mobile home next door to get her son's shoes. "I heard Jim yell: 'Help! Can anybody hear me?' " she recalls. She ran down for a closer look, saw what was happening and went into Mr. Emery's place to call 911.

“Capt. Roberdeau was first to arrive. Thinking Mr. Emery was being gored, he got ready to shoot Casper. Mr. Emery said, "No. That would be a $10,000 bullet." Capt. Roberdeau grabbed Casper's antlers, but the animal didn't budge. Next to arrive was Rocky Millis, Butte County deputy sheriff, who grabbed hold too. "I never realized reindeer were that strong," he says. Even after two more men arrived, Casper could not be pulled off Mr. Emery. The beast began dragging him and his four would-be rescuers toward a water hole. Mr. Emery told Capt. Roberdeau to go ahead and shoot if Casper pulled them into the water. Just then, local rancher Merlin Porterfield showed up and could hardly believe that Mr. Emery was unhurt. The antlers pinning him to the ground gave him the appearance of "one of those guys they stick in a box and put swords through," Mr. Porterfield recalls. Mr. Porterfield lassoed Casper's hind legs and pulled him down, allowing Mr. Emery to escape essentially uninjured.

“Casper, however, had had enough. He gasped and fell dead on the spot. "He had a heart attack," Capt. Roberdeau says. The battle with the bull made news as far away as Rapid City, about 70 miles southeast of Belle Fourche. "Bell Fourche man rescued from love-struck reindeer," ran the headline in the Rapid City Journal... Jokes aren't all that have been made of Casper. Last Saturday, a gathering at the home of Mr. Emery's parents found his father, Chuck, at the stove. "It's not bad, Chuck," said Mr. Emery's mother, Leota, as she bit into a piece of fried Casper. "But I would rather have beef."

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated May 2016

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