With the holidays fast approaching, little ones are on the lookout for all things magical, be it festive lights, glimpses of Santa or lighted trees. Forget the actual presents; the holidays are really about the buildup – the idea of something wonderful approaching.
In ancient times, when our rhythms were much more connected to the cycles of the Earth, the time that precedes the winter solstice Dec. 21 was a time of darkness and cold before the days started lengthening again. So, the holidays truly are a time of anticipation, strengthened by the remnants in our genetic code of the anticipation of longer days and warmer temperatures.
The natural world provides much of the magic associated with this time of the year. Long before the Christmas tree became associated with Christianity, plants that remained green all year had a special meaning for people in the winter. Evergreen boughs reminded people of the green plants that would grow again when the sun returned.
One of the favorite holiday symbols is the reindeer. The eight named reindeer of Santa Claus first appeared in American literature in 1823 in the famous poem “A Visit from Saint Nicholas,” written by Clement Clarke Moore. Some think that Moore based his idea on the mythical Norse stories of Thor, the God of Thunder, who flew through the stormy sky in chariots drawn by magical goats. Goats were a popular Christmas symbol in Sweden during the 18th century.
Reindeer are a species of deer that live in the Arctic regions of the world. Like the goat, they were also widely domesticated. However, they make a much better choice for sleigh pulling. The largest reindeer can reach up to 4 feet high at the shoulder and weigh as much as 250 pounds. Each reindeer can pull up to twice its own weight.
Reindeer are well-adapted to living in cold regions and under rugged conditions. They have large, broad hooves, which act like snowshoes to support them over snowy and boggy ground. These hooves emit a “clicking” sound as the animal walks, caused by a tendon in the foot rubbing against a bone. The coat of the reindeer consists of thick fur and stiff hairs, which protect them from the worst of the weather. A thick, woolly, waterproof undercoat keeps out the deep cold by trapping air near the skin. Reindeer migrate over vast distances, crossing both rivers and lakes, in search of favorable feeding grounds. The calves are born in early summer and have the ability to run almost from the moment they are born.
The reindeer driven by Santa Claus are the only known flying reindeer in existence, believed to have been endowed with the power of flight by virtue of magic corn given to Kriss Kringle by a great wizard. Through this magic corn, the strength of the reindeer is increased threefold, their stamina increased to infinity and their hooves can manipulate the air as though it were solid ground. Thus, nine reindeer would be able to pull a sleigh brimming with 13,500 pounds of toys for an unlimited amount of time. (For all you naturalists out there, please do not try fact-checking the information in this paragraph.)
Each Christmas, my children put out apples and carrots for the reindeer in the attempt to provide sustenance on their long journey. The treats probably do attract some of our native mule deer that live in Colorado, also hoping for a glance at their magical reindeer cousins.
Regardless of how you choose to spend the holidays, the magic of nature is a gift to us all. We are reminded of this in our symbols, traditions and stories.
Sally Shuffield is executive director of Durango Nature Studies. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 382-9244.