The story of Christmas: once upon a time there was an old Norse God named Thor who rolled across the sky in a sleigh calling ‘I’m Thor’. His sleigh was pulled by two large, horned goats.
For the practical people of the northern countries of Europe, the onset of Christianity took a bit of the gloss off worshipping Thor and he was replaced by St Nicholas, a 4th century saint with a reputation for secret gift-giving, such as putting coins in the shoes of those who left them out for him, a practice celebrated on his feast day (6 December in the Gregorian calender; or 19 December in the Julian calender). Yet Nick did not come to us from his Greek heritage but from the Dutch Sinterklaas, derived by extraction from the Greek “Saint Nikolaos”.
So here we had a credible Christian saint to pray to, but we needed a replacement for the goats. And this is where the tale really starts. By good chance the reindeer of the Laplands is a friendly beast, with a short tail, cloven hooves and antlers – an ideal substitute.
Yet it was thanks to the Americans in New York, a town with many Dutch, German and Scandinavian settlers, that the legend of Santa Claus (abbreviated from Sinterklaas) arose. In 1821, New York printer William Gilley published a supposedly anonymous booklet called A New Year’s Present (as a story of Christmas), that referred to reindeer:
Old Santeclaus with much delight
His reindeer drives this frosty night.
O’er chimney tops, and tracks of snow,
To bring his yearly gifts to you.
Reindeer were once viewed as mysterious creatures associated particularly with the Scandinavian countries. There, they were often used in transportation, pulling sleds and sleighs, and are still an important part of some indigenous northern European cultures, particularly to the Laplanders. So an author whose heritage may have been native Laplander could well spin a tale of a reindeer with a short tail pulling a sled through the skies.
The naming of the 7th and 8th reindeer of Santa Claus’s sleigh team as Dunder (Donner – Thunder) and Blixem (Blitzen – Lightning), though also coming from the poem ‘The Night Before Christmas’, was published in 1823 as a story of Christmas in the Troy Sentinel in a strong Dutch settlement area of upstate New York. Whether this connection with Thor was accidental or not may depend on the unpublished name of the author.
In such a way do homophones, similar sounding words and similar images drift into our language.
This short tale of Saint Nick
Is from legends that trick,
‘tween stories of old,
Cloven goats with short tails,
Become reindeer with sails;
Thund’rous Thor in his day
Now a saint with a sleigh;
And stories of gold gifts
Down chimneys or snow drifts;
The truth matters not
Just the presents you got
Here ends a short ‘tail’, a story of Christmas