FATHER Christmas, as we now know him in the UK, dates back to Henry VIII’s reign in the 16th century. Then, he was portrayed as a portly man dressed in green or scarlet robes edged with fur. In other languages, he has various names such as ‘Pere Noel’ in French, ‘de Kerstman’ (the Christmas man) or ‘Sinterklaas’ (Saint Klaas) in Dutch, leading to Santa Claus in the English-speaking world!
His real name is St Nicholas, a fourth century Greek Christian bishop of Myra, now in modern Turkey. Born into a rich family, he forsook luxury and entered holy orders. It is true that he sported a white beard but was most remembered by his most generous gifts to poor people. Today, St Nicholas has become the patron saint to children, sailors, archers, and pawnbrokers.
In pagan times, the Germanic people celebrated a midwinter event called ‘Yule’. During the Yuletide festival the Norse god ‘Wodan’, who was depicted with a long white beard and seated on a grey horse, would ride the skies by night delivering gifts to children. It was very many centuries later, on Dec 23, 1828, that an anonymous author had published in a New York newspaper, ‘The Sentinel’, a poem entitled ‘A Visit From St Nicholas’ or better known today as ‘The Night Before Christmas’.
Thus, today, we have Santa in his sleigh pulled by eight reindeer, including ‘Donner’ and ‘Blitzen’ (Thunder and Lightning), hanging from shopping mall ceilings from San Francisco to Singapore.
During the Pleistocene glaciations (1.4 million to 10,000 years Before Present) wild reindeer roamed the permafrost areas edging the continental ice sheets in America and Eurasia. They are depicted in early human’s cave paintings in Southern Europe, and it is thought that they were first domesticated in the Sayan Mountains between Russia and Mongolia. With the melting of the ice sheets, reindeer left southern areas and migrated to the tundra lands of the north.
Commonly known as ‘reindeer’ in Eurasia and ‘caribou’ in North America, they belong to the genus of deer ‘Rangifer’, of which there are six subspecies. I shall only concentrate on the Eurasian reindeer and their herders.
The size of these animals varies seasonally from heavier weights in the warmer summer months to lower weights in the colder winter months. This is directly related to their seasonal diets and their metabolism. Bull reindeer measure between 180cm to 215cm in length and weigh between 160kg and 180kg with tail lengths of between 100cm and 135cm, which they frequently use in summer in ridding their hindquarters and backs of mosquito swarms.
These are the only deer species where the bulls and cows both grow antlers, the bulls developing in Springtime and the cows in early Summer. The growing antlers are laced in a thick velvet, filled with blood vessels and very spongey. During the final burst of growth, the velvet is shed, and the antler hardens.
Their antlers are used in self defence against predators and especially between opposing males during the rutting time. In late December, the males lose their antlers and grow a new and larger pair. Cow antlers’ fall off in late Spring.
Their wide, cloven hooves change seasonally; in summer, in the wet and soft tundra their footpads are sponge-like thus providing extra traction. During wintertime the pads contract and tighten thus exposing the sharp edge of the hoof which can cut into ice and frozen snow to enable these wonderful animals to scratch through the snow to reach their main source of food – reindeer lichen. In the summer months they feed on grasses and sedges and the leaves of dwarf birch and willow trees.
Mating occurs in late September to early November with a bull ‘performing’ amongst up to 20 cows. Calves are born after about 230 days of gestation in the early summer months. After 45 days as sucklings, the calves graze and a few months later they become independent but follow their family herd during the seasonal migration.
It is during the calving time that predators pose the greatest threats in terms of golden eagles, wolverines, and even polar bears. As mentioned earlier, it is during the summer months that they are plagued by mosquitoes and other flies. However, reindeer are very good swimmers and to rid their pelts of tormenting fly pests, they go for a swim in rivers and lakes.
Today, there are only two genetically pure populations of wild reindeer in Northern Europe, the wild mountain reindeer in central Norway and the wild Finnish ones in central and eastern Finland and in northern Russia. Once reindeer were herded by people such as the Saami in Fennoscandia, the Yakuts in northern Russia and the Eveny in northern China. Then, reindeer herders migrated with the herds following the annual migration routes.
Domesticated reindeer are mostly found in northern Fennoscandia and Russia, yet a herd (introduced by Lapps in the 1950s) is found in the Scottish Cairngorm Mountains. In 2005, The International Centre for Reindeer Husbandry was established by the Norwegian government and now represents 20 indigenous reindeer peoples and about 100,000 reindeer herders in nine circumpolar nations.
Herding is essential for small rural economies found in remote tundra areas where the reindeer are raised for their prized meat, hides, milk, and antlers. Originally, they were tamed and harnessed to pull sledges but no longer, for ‘snowmobiles’ have superseded this historic form of transport in Fennoscandia.
Traditions still hold
The Saami people of Fennoscandia are steeped in tradition and folklore, resplendently dressed in traditional costumes and regalia at family weddings and feasts. They are very proud people with many dialects, but nowadays rural depopulation has dispersed many youths into cities. Those that remain in their homesteads, supplement their income from handcrafted tourist souvenirs for visitors who literally ‘lap up’ their culture.
Frequent Christmastide airline flights to Lapland attract wealthy parents with their children to see Santa Claus in Lapland with a sleigh ride included. This provides some extra income to the indigenous folk. These reindeer people need extra freedom from governmental rules and dictats as once they had wherever they are located in the tundra areas of our world.
Memories of past Christmases
To see Father Christmas arriving in a snowmobile without his reindeer would not be acceptable to today’s children. They need, on Christmas Eve, to think and dream of the ‘superman of the skies’ who is towed by his reindeer! My late wife, Sheila, helped our children, on Christmas Eve, to lay out on the table a mince pie and a glass of sherry or a small can of beer especially for Santa and a bunch of carrots or greens for his reindeer.
Lo and behold, when our children awoke very, very early on Christmas Day, all these ‘goodies’ had vanished into thin air! Yet, Santa had delivered their presents under their decorated Christmas tree.
May I wish all staff from all departments of The Borneo Post, thesundaypost, my readers, and all my friends and teachers in Sarawak, Sabah, and KL, a well-deserved and very Happy Christmas holiday! May St Nicholas bless us and all people and creatures worldwide.