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Thursday, January 9, 2014

Where Did the Idea that Santa's Reindeer Fly Come From?

All over the internet you can find fanciful explanations of how Santa’s reindeer fly. But nowhere on or off the internet have I come across an historical explanation of how the fanciful notion came arose in history. Those who have glanced at the issue will tell you that the idea comes from the Moore/Livingstone poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (also known as “Twas the Night before Christmas”) and leave it at that. Once, briefly, the truth of the story was revealed on Wikipedia. But my explanation was very quickly taken down (sadly and uncharacteristically before I could make a copy). As I did not have the energy to re-explain, the truth has remained nowhere on earth ever since. But the burden of being the only one who knows has weighed heavily upon me lo these many years. So, I must, to divest myself of it, rebuild the house.

Not that it's really that hard to do. This mystery, like so many others, is open to anyone who cares to look for it.

Here is the reference to flight in the famous poem:

                               As leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
                               When the meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky;
                               So up to the housetop the coursers they flew
                               With the sleigh full of toys, and St. Nicholas too--

This seems clear enough. At first. But it clearly wasn’t clear to other compilers of the Santa Claus story. (I’d say “myth” but I won’t want to rove into actual controversy here.) The most prominent among these myth makers was perhaps L. Frank Baum, whose competing list of reindeer names did not take. The Moore/Livingstone poem was first published in 1823. But as late as 1902 in Baum’s “The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus” the idea that Santa’s reindeer fly still had not taken off.
It may be that the Moore/Livingstone poem was still not iconic enough for the image to emerge automatically in the mind of the typical American child. And the fact that Baum could ignore the whole poem does suggest that though the poem was already popular, it was not yet quite the central reference point it has become.
But (I think) the most likely reason of all may be—that the poem had not yet been misunderstood. I have not been able to find who first misread this Christmas classic. I suspect it was an illustrator of the Coca-Cola/Thomas Nast variety. Someone made a pretty picture and from then on this crazy idea of reindeer flight was read back onto the poem and has been there ever since. This may have happened around 1902.  

But how can I call this a misreading when I’ve already quoted the clear evidence and labeled it as “clear.” Hmm. Well, first of all, I lied when I called the evidence clear.

Before looking at the lines quoted again, I’d like to recall the rest of the poem. For one, this is not the only reference to flight in the poem. Later in the poem we get  "And away they all flew like the down of a thistle." But we will perpend that reference for the moment while we note that still later in the poem, when popular imagination and occasional rewriting says, “I heard him explain as he flew out of sight,” what the poem actually says is “I heard him exclaim as he drove out of sight.” I wish I could argue this next point from the quality of the poet’s verse, but there remains serious question as to the identity of the poet, and the one poet of the pair whose work we could use as a guide was not particularly good at his craft. Nonetheless, I will assert that poetics would argue that “flew” is the better choice if the poet envisions reindeer that fly.  The vowel of “flew” is light and swift and represents the motion of flying much better than the heavy “o” of “drove.” Say “flew” outloud, then say “drove.” Which one sounds more like flight? Any poet worth his salt would know this.

But Moore may not have been, as I say, worth his salt, and Livingstone gave us nothing but this poem to go by.

Now I’d like to look at one other piece of evidence from the poem itself. The narrator, suddenly awoken by clatter, tears himself to the window and reports what he sees in these words:

                   The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow,
                   Gave a luster of midday to objects below;
                   When what to my wondering eyes did appear,
                   But a miniature sleigh and eight tiny rein-deer.

We might say that the reindeer are miniature because they are far way. But why are they “below.” Clearly this narrator is looking down, where ground-based reindeer would be traveling. Why else would he mention that the moon gave a luster of midday to objects below?

But that still leaves us with these troublesome lines:

             As leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
             When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky;
             So up to the housetop, his coursers they flew
             With a sleigh full of toys and St. Nicholas too.

Surely the reindeer fly to the roof? How else would they get up there? But do they? The image  here is strained, hard to picture, but it seems we are to think of the reindeer as being blown to the roof like leaves are pushed against an obstacle in a hurricane. The only other instance of the verb “flew” in the poem, we should note, are in the line already noted about the thistle and in this line:  “Away to the window, I flew like a flash.” And the same, I contend, goes for the flight of thistledown. It is an image seen from above of the impression given by the sleigh against the snow. It is not meant or represent actual flight. The poet likes this word for “went fast.”

So what we find in the end is that while the idea that Santa’s reindeer fly probably did come from this poem, it came from a misreading of this poem and began probably a century or so after the first publication of this foundational vision of the story. But if it came from a misreading of the poem, it could not have happened by this alone. Some other later trigger—such as the illustrator I surmised above—must also have been involved.

By the way, what it says about our ability to read poetry today or our familiarity with animal-drawn sleighs I do not know. But it surely says something.


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