Rudolph a Girl? Analyzing a Reindeer Problem

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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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