Rudolph a Girl? Analyzing a Reindeer Problem

Hillary Mayell
for National Geographic News
December 24, 2002

A story circulating on the Internet this holiday season claims that the famous Rudolph may have been a girl.

Rudolph, the red-nosed reindeer, is the lead guy hauling the sleigh as Santa makes his annual one-night trip around the world.

As the much-emailed account goes, male reindeer generally shed their antlers long before December 25, whereas the females retain theirs until at least January. The reindeer are always depicted as having antlers, so Santa's outriders must all be females.

But is there a scientific basis to this theory?

A hard look at the evidence suggests that at least some of Santa's reindeer were females (the ones giving the directions, no doubt), some may have been young bulls, and some may have been neutered males. And Rudolph got to be the lead guy because he had a snout full of parasites.

Many questions remain; how is it that Santa chose reindeer to haul his sleigh? Why not horses? And who made Father Christmas fat? Inquiring minds want to know.

Creating Legends and Traditions

Two children's books written in the early 1800s are credited with introducing the reindeer aspect to the Santa legend.

The first, The Children's Friend, published in 1821, contains an illustration depicting an elfin-sized Santa dressed in red in a tiny sleigh pulled by one reindeer. The scene shows him delivering books and toys to good children, and a birch rod to those that have been naughty, said Laura Wasowicz at the American Antiquarian Society. "The book is very rare," she said. "We might have the only copy."

But it wasn't until 1823, when Clement Clarke Moore first published The Night Before Christmas in an upstate New York newspaper, that the reindeer legend really took off. In Moore's classic poem Santa had eight reindeer and they didn't really fly.

"Every American knows this poem," said Stephen Nissenbaum, historian and author of The Battle for Christmas, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 1996. "But the 1848 edition shows Santa and the reindeer as miniature—elfin—and not flying through the air; they only leap into the air to avoid an obstacle or to get on the rooftop from the ground."

Continued on Next Page >>


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