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."

Moore is also the one who named the reindeer, as "Santa whistled and shouted and called them by name: Now Dasher! Now Dancer! Now, Prancer and Vixen! On, Comet, on, Cupid! On Donder and Blitzen."

It's possible to envision males named Dasher, Prancer, and Blitzen. But Vixen? Even Dancer is questionable as a boy name. It may be that Moore, who after all created the eight reindeer, knew it was a co-ed bunch.

Santa and his reindeer didn't attain life-size proportions until illustrator Thomas Nast began to depict Santa as a fat, bearded fellow living in the North Pole for Christmas issues of Harper's magazine beginning in the 1860s. It was also Nast who created Santa's workshop and the list of children's names, marking whether they'd been naughty or nice. Today only the toy-shop workers are portrayed as elves.

Rudolph, the ninth reindeer, the one with the red and shiny nose, made his first appearance in an illustrated pamphlet written in 1939 for the Montgomery Ward Company as an in-store handout for children. Rudolph became part of the zeitgeist when Johnny Marks wrote the song Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer in 1949, and had the good luck to have it recorded by the very popular singing cowboy, Gene Autry.

Still, why reindeer?

"I have no idea," said Nissenbaum. "I suppose the connotation is that in the north they use reindeer. Reindeer at the time were starting to be depicted in children's primers, and were becoming vaguely familiar exotic creatures to people, much like King Kong in more recent times."

Rudolph and Friends in the Spotlight

The question of Rudolph and his ' gender is slightly tricky. Santa's reindeer are always portrayed as having antlers.

So far, no problem. Reindeer, both wild and semi-domesticated, are the only members of the deer family in which both sexes grow antlers. The question is when do they shed them?

"The largest bulls shed their antlers first, almost immediately after the rutting season ends in late October," said Pat Valkenburg, a wildlife biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. "The sparring between bulls during rutting season can be extremely violent. In herds with a lot of mature bulls, injuries from rutting can be the leading cause of death."

By the end of the rutting season, the bulls not only don't have antlers, they're so played out that the likelihood that they could haul the fat man and tons of toys around the world in one night is slim.

Young bulls and cows can keep their antlers sometimes through April, depending on the nutritional conditions, amount of daylight, and retention of testosterone.

The Sami people of Lapland, whose livelihood depends on their reindeer herds, frequently neuter their working reindeer, which would interrupt the cycle that causes males to shed their antlers.

The evidence therefore leads to the conclusion that Santa's reindeer are either females, young bulls, or neutered.

Then there's the question of what made Rudolph's nose red—other than the whim of a copywriter.

In his book The Physics of Christmas, Roger Highfield, science editor for the London-based Daily Telegraph, cites the research of Odd Halvorsen of the University of Oslo. Halvorsen pointed out in the journal Parasitology Today, that reindeer noses provide a welcoming environment for bugs, and suggested that the "celebrated discoloration" of Rudolph's nose is probably due to parasites.

Valkenburg offers an alternative conclusion.

"Rudolph is a mythical character," he laughed. "He can be anything he wants to be."

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