When I was around 9 or 10 years old, my dad took my brother and me Christmas shopping in Park City. During our trip, we were stranded in the shopping center because of an overwhelming snow storm that made it impossible to see more than a few feet in front of us. As children, we thought this was really neat, especially because the shopping center was a strip mall instead of a big indoor area. The phrase "Winter Wonderland" means totally different things to children than it does to adults. And at the moment, we were in it.
On one of the street corners, there was a man who held red leather reigns, laden with silver bells in a brown leather mittened hand. The reigns belonged to a very young reindeer.
Clement Moore said
But a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny reindeer"
Well, this little reindeer was about the size of a very large dog. Maybe the size of a golden retriever. The fact that it was a young reindeer is the reason it was just that small. Officially, what we call 'reindeer' are actually caribou. In the world of deer and elk, caribou really are fairly tiny, though they do get much bigger than that shrimpy little thing I saw in Park City.
With Christmas just days away, I can barely contain my excitement, let alone my children. The more excited they get, the naughtier they become. My oldest daughter, Lilly, tends to get sick to her stomach when she is over stressed, so she spent today on the couch with a bucket and a towel, watching Christmas movies over and over. By this afternoon, though, she was running amok with the rest of my little trouble makers.
As a parent at Christmas time, I am always amazed at the intelligent questions my children ask, and everyone has their own answer for all of them. For example, my son wanted to know why Santa uses reindeer instead of horses to pull his sleigh. He thinks he should use horses. And my daughter wanted to know how they even fly at all, because she sees deer eating the grass over on the golf course near her preschool all the time, but she's never seen any of them fly. They just run away. And what's up with Rudolph the 'red nosed reindeer?'. While all my children are wild eyed with belief in Santa Claus and his elves, both of my oldest children suspect Rudolph to be quite the tall tale. No body's nose actually glows.
The first question is the easiest and most logical answer. Reindeer are the closest thing to a pack animal that Santa can get in the North Pole. I mean, lets face it. Polar bears might be strong, cute and really fuzzy. But they're impossible to tame, and more likely to eat Santa than to obey his commands. Aside from that, the reindeer exhibit incredible endurance and stamina; a trait that is essential on Christmas Eve night.
The second question, how do reindeer fly, is arguably the most difficult to answer. It's also the part where the magic comes in.
Have you ever noticed that sometimes, weeds can be just as pretty or lacy or detailed as the flowers that we plant on purpose? I daresay that this comes in handy all the time during the summer. Anything in my flower bed is a 'looking flower' and anything that grows on the grass or in the strip of parking dirt next to our house is a 'picking flower.' In the summer time, my window sills are overflowing with glasses full of water and morning glories, milk weed, blowing flowers, and any other thing my children might find pretty.
Ragwort is a weed that has long been thought poisonous, though it's leaves have many healing qualities for shallow wounds and bruises. For the Faeries, though, ragwort is pretty significant. Often, they bury their gold beneath ragwort plants, and most incredibly, stalks of this weed are used as horses when they want to fly. (Remember, not all Faeries have wings.) One Cornish man was said to have ridden one of these stalks to Faerie land and back by using the magic words "Horse and hattock!"
It is my understanding that while the reindeer are impeccably groomed and fed at the workshop in the North Pole, living more like treasured pets than livestock, they are fed small amounts of ragwort with their oats or hay from Hallows Eve on so that by Christmas time, they can gallop through the air without any trouble at all. However, this is not something I would recommend to folks at home. Dosage is very important, and ragwort is in no way a proper food group for your animals. Besides, it generally is believed only to work for Faeries. Unless you are a Faerie, it is best not to tempt tragedy.
The last question is probably mostly just a let down, though I tend to find it fascinating. Easily enough, the reindeer known to us by the name of Rudolph, simply happens to be an albino reindeer like the one pictured above. His nose, because of his albino nature, is actually a pinkish color, though it doesn't glow so much as it stands out. Further more, Rudolph tends to have a simply amazing sense of direction. Seeing in the fog isn't really a necessity when you have an animal that just always to know where he is at all times. It's like a built in GPS.
It doesn't really matter what you tell your children, but they will all eventually ask the same questions. It's always good to have a source to go to for the real answers, though, isn't it? If you believe that apples and carrots help keep Rudolph's nose shiny and effective, then by all means, leave apples and carrots as a midnight snack for him. But don't forget Dasher, Dance, Prancer and Vixen, Comet and Cupid and Donder and Blitzen. Because they work just as hard.
This year, we're going to be spending Christmas with my husband's family. I'm sure that on Christmas Eve, when we lay out the milk and cookies for Santa, and place a handful of pretty, happy looking yellow flowers into a glass of water, everyone else will think they are just pretty decoration. But maybe our flowers will help keep those reindeer flying throughout the night.