“I hope you aren’t going to tell little children those reindeer can fly,” a lady told me when she learned friends of the museum had donated funds to sponsor reindeer at the annual Holiday Open House at the museum. As these reindeer live at Hardy’s ranch in Illinois, not the North Pole, they may not possess the aeronautical capabilities credited to their northern cousins. But children just naturally associate reindeer with flying, and an eight-hitch team from the North Pole has been a Christmas tradition for far longer than any living person can remember.
So, it only seems fair to let children make up their own minds about what reindeer can or cannot do. A response on the Internet for the simple request “flying reindeer” received more than 5 million hits, so it is a lively subject.
Flying reindeer have long been depicted in publications and advertisements. In Danville, a number of historic businesses featured them in Christmas ads, among them Woodbury Book Company, Sandusky Furniture Company, and Hacker’s Fair. An ad for Lionel trains, available at Black & Company when it was located at 31 N. Hazel St., pictured the sleigh loaded with the latest toy trains.
In a Christmas booklet distributed by Vermilion County Abstract in 1951, Santa Claus can be seen in his sleigh, being pulled by a team of reindeer in front of a full moon. The abstract company’s fine reputation was based on obtaining factual information, anything printed was carefully researched.
The timeless poem “The Night Before Christmas” credited to Clement Clark Moore, introduced the now-famous eight-hitch team of flying reindeer in the 1820s. Since that time they have been featured in numerous books, motion pictures, and television programs. They are certainly an established part of Christmas culture.
Passed down through my family is an 1800s booklet featuring Moore’s poem. It has been well used and many pages are now missing, but the centerfold, picturing the reindeer soaring with Santa’s sleigh, remains intact. The reindeer look the same as they do in current depictions, but the toys in Santa’s sleigh differ from what might be found today. Pictured are a drum, rocking horse, pull toy, dolls and a doll house. A bearskin keeps Santa warm as he soars through the winter sky.
The names of the reindeer inscribed under the picture are: Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Cupid, Dunder and Blitzen. The name Dunder has now been changed to Donner. A newcomer named Rudolph joined the team more than 50 years ago.
Can reindeer fly? There seems to be a lot of circumstantial evidence pointing out they can, at least on one special night of the year. But let the children decide that fact for themselves. What harm is there in allowing them to believe in the magic of a Christmas tradition, at least for a little while?
Donald Richter’s column appears every other week in the Commercial-News. He is a member of the Vermilion County Museum Board.