It was more than ten years ago during our first visit to Santa Claus village – a tourist attraction in Rovaniemi in the north of Finland. My 6-year-old daughter asked Santa Claus why his reindeer can fly in the sky. Surely, this could not be true! Last summer, when she was in the Yamal tundra, she did not see any flying reindeer. The old Santa Claus answered her that that’s right, only his reindeer could fly, while other reindeer could not.
Yes, maybe they cannot fly, that is true. The Nenets legend says that Noom – the biggest Nenets demiurge – created the first human, a dog and a reindeer herd. Then he decided that the reindeer will be associated with the sky, people will live on earth and tundra dogs will be connected with the Nga, the evil spirit of underground.
A reindeer herder from Yamal once said that reindeer are like the wind: you have them today, but tomorrow, they can all fly away to the sky. Thus, he meant that even these animals are very strong, but they are also very vulnerable and can easily die.
Perhaps Nenets reindeer herders have developed such an attitude towards reindeer that they are like wind, because their animals are very much dependent on all the conditions of the Arctic climate, it’s seasons and weather with snow and rain. When every extreme weather phenomenon, like winter icing in the tundra can become fatal to reindeer and kill them.
The Nenets reindeer herders believe that Ilebyam’ Pertya, the Nenets deity, is responsible for the wealth of people and the well-being of their reindeer.
However, nowadays during conditions of the rapid climate change in the Arctic, reindeer herders are in the first line of dealing with it. Their work with reindeer is more and more like playing Russian roulette: one year can be without extreme weather events, and the next could be with a harsh icing covering on the pastures, which can be fatal to reindeer. However their nomadic life and historical background prepared the tundra people to be ready to deal with any unpredictable difficulties in their life.
Therefore, it should be better if only Santa Claus’ reindeer could fly, but not ordinary reindeer. Let reindeer stay in the tundra and keep reindeer herding cultures alive!
4 thoughts on “If Santa Claus’ reindeer can fly, what about other reindeer?”
or: if all reindeer could fly, they would have better chances of flying to different pastures when their own grazing grounds are iced-over:) but then how would the herders find their animals again? Because they can’t fly… Maybe with the help of drones? In northern Europe they have started using drones for checking the whereabouts of reindeer. That saves people a lot of petrol when they don’t need to drive themselves to locate the herd. But I understand that in Yamal the wind is much stronger, and is more likely to blow away small fragile drones. And the herders do not have of course the big ones that are in use in the Ukraine conflict…
Thank you for this comment about drones. I think that drones are still a new technology for the tundra people. Not so many Nenets herders are familiar with them and how to use them for herding. I remember that one reindeer herder from Greenland said that he herds his reindeer in mountains with a drone-helicopter, which much bigger that an ordinary drone.
BTW, Roza: you could tell your daughter that there are some selected other people too whose reindeer can fly:) Castren mentioned in his 1853 publication on page 253 that a shaman went by reindeer sledge to the sky, departing somewhere from the Urals. (Castren, Reiseerinnerugen aus den Jahren 1838-1844 (St. Petersburg, 1853). So the capacity is still there. I guess the problem is less with the reindeer but with the people who don’t know how to make them fly anymore. For that we would need to revive more of Nenest shamanism!
Yes, there are different Nenets stories about flying reindeer. I think that in the Nenets culture only gods’ reindeer can fly. And also shamans can travel to the sky on reindeer sledges to talk to their gods. Santa Claus or Saint Nicholas, who is also known as Nikolai Ugodnik, sits also among the Nenets gods in the sky, they call him Mikolka. Who knows, maybe he moved to Rovaniemi from Yamal, flying on the Nenets sky reindeer :).