I’ve often thought it was kind of unfair that reindeer get to be so closely associated with the Christmas holidays, instead of horses.
When it comes to human history, horses have been a whole lot more important than reindeer. (I mean, no one ever wrote a poem about the Charge of the Light Reindeer Brigade). And it’s not that reindeer aren’t cute and all, just that when it comes to a task as important as delivering a sleighful of heavy presents, you’d think that horses might get the nod, particularly in terms of their history of reliability. In fact, reindeer are a bit of a group of Johnnies-come-lately when it comes to the holiday scene.
The legend of flying reindeer (eight of them) probably didn’t even start until the early 19th century poem “Twas the Night Before Christmas.” Of course, once the word was out, the idea of flying reindeer really took off. (I couldn’t resist).
Adding to the momentum, in 1939, an advertising copywriter for the Montgomery Ward department store in Chicago names Robert May came up with a novel idea: May conceived the idea of a shiny-nosed reindeer, a Santa’s helper, and named him “Rudolph,” which was the name preferred by his four-year old daughter. That Christmas of 1939, 2.4 million copies of the “Rudolph” booklet were handed out in Montgomery Ward stores across the country.
In 1947, Johnny Marks, a friend of Robert May, put “Rudolph” to music. After singer after singer turned down the chance to record the song, in 1949, the singing cowboy, Gene Autry gave it a try and the song shot to the top of the Hit Parade.
Since then, three hundred different recordings of “Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer” have been made, and more than eighty million records have been sold, making it the second most popular Christmas song of all time, behind only Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas.”
ASIDE NUMBER ONE: In 2012, the esteemed British Medical Journal, in their whimsical yearly holiday issue, posted an observational study on “Why Rudolf’s Nose is Red.” If you’re interested, science-minded, if you have a sense of humor, or all three, you can read it if you CLICK HERE.
ASIDE NUMBER TWO: FUN, LITTLE KNOWN FACTS ABOUT RUDOLF THE RED-NOSED REINDEER
- Bing Crosby, the famed singer of “White Christmas,” turned down the opportunity to do the original recording
- One name that was originally considered for Rudolf was “Reginald”
- In the first version, Rudolf’s nose glowed, “Like the Eyes of a Cat”
- Rudolf’s friends apparently gave him the nickname “Ruddy,” but that was left out of the song
Of course, the US has not entirely abandoned the horse at Christmastime.
Horses are big part of Christmas in other parts of the world. It turns out that a big white horse is an important part of the holidays in the Netherlands, and much of northern Europe. He’s ridden by Sinterklaas.
Sinterklaas is the Dutch name for Saint Nicholas, a bishop of the Greek Orthodox Church, born in 271 AD, who lived and worked in Asia Minor, in part of what is now Turkey. According to legend, Sinteklaas saved his town from starvation, revived three dead children, and offered dowries to very poor girls so that they could get married.
Sailors started believing in St. Nicholas, too, because three of them swore that he had calmed a very rough sea when bad weather conditions cause them trouble. Today, St. Nicholas is the patron saint of sailors, the patron saint of the city of Amsterdam, and the patron saint of Russia.
It’s curious that in Holland, people believe that St. Nicholas comes from Spain. There are probably a few reasons for this. Seventeenth century Holland was a world maritime power, so Dutch sailors must have had plenty of opportunity to be in touch with Spanish sailors; furthermore, Holland was under Spanish rule in the 16th century, and they also believed in St. Nicholas as their guardian saint.
But back to horses. In Holland, Sinterklaas rides on a white horse. In centuries past, white horses were a sign of wealth an prestige. Sinterklaas, who is a very old man, with a white beard, a long metal staff, a regal head dress (called a hop’smiter), and a red cape, looks quite important when he rides in on his white horse to bring gifts. Before the children go to bed, they fill wooden shoes with hay and sugar, or a carrot, for Sinterklass’s white horse. Later, on the night of December 5th, Sinterklaas takes his book of names and goes out with his friend Zwarte Piet delivering gifts to the good children. What happens to the bad children? The bad children might get a lump of coal. The worst of the children might get stuffed into Sinterklaas’ bag and taken back to Spain!
Surely, by now you’re wondering, What’s the horse’s name? Well, in Holland, according to Google sources, he’s apparently called “Amerigo.” But in Belgium, the story gets amusing. In Belgium, the horse’s name is apparently “Slechtweervandaag”, which means “Bad Weather Today.” Belgian children learn that when Sinterklaas got his horse, he couldn’t think of a name. Sinterklaas asked his friend Zwarte Piet for a suggestion. But Zwarte Piet didn’t hear the question, and answered, “Slecht Weer Vandaag,” thinking that Sinterklaas was asking about the weather. Sinterklaas thought Zwarte Piet was actually naming the horse, and the name stuck.
ASIDE NUMBER THREE: Some of the Dutch are not entirely at ease with Zwarte Piet, feeling that he’s a vestige of colonial racism. CLICK HERE to see a story from CNN World. I am not interested in entering the fray over this, just trying to be fair and balanced.
Anyway, I say bully for “Rudolph” and “Dancer” and “Dasher” and friends, but as a horse enthusiast, I’m happy to know that when Sinterklaas is coming to town, he’s riding something that’s tried and true. In fact, I’d bet that “Amerigo,” or “Slechtweervandaag,” could even pull Santa’s sleigh in a pinch.
Dr. David Ramey is a 1983 graduate of the Colorado State University School of Veterinary Medicine. In addition to being a full-time equine veterinary practitioner in Encino, California, Dr. Ramey is also an internationally recognized author, lecturer and blogger. Dr. Ramey is a vocal advocate for the application of science to medicine, and—as such—for the welfare of the horse.