This illustration, from 1821, is the first known depiction of Santa Claus being pulled by a reindeer.
We get the conceit of Santa’s eight reindeer from the reindeer husbandry practiced by the indigenous people of Fennoscandia. In Siberia, the locals shave curlicues of meat from frozen reindeer steaks, which they eat raw and chase with vodka. The native peoples of Norway, Finland, and Northwestern Russia have, for generations, herded local caribou populations; in some cases domesticating the animals to the extent that they can be attached to sleighs and used as draft animals. Unlike other beasts of burden, the reindeer are only semi-domesticated, as they have not undergone the physiological changes that arise when animals come to depend on humans. They are more accurately considered “tame” than domestic per se, in the sense that a pet wolf has been (at least arguably) “tamed” without fully evolving into a Golden Retriever.
No doubt the 19th-century poet who first conceived of Santa Claus as riding on a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer had somehow become aware of the reindeer’s history as a semi-domesticated animal; probably through engravings in books about the Norwegian Sami. While Euro-Asian reindeer herds have come perilously close to dying out, this quirky, Antebellum interpretation of Jolly St. Nick and his eight reindeer has since become the American norm.
At least in an immediate sense, this history does not help understand the how and why of playwright Jeff Goode’s The Eight: Reindeer Monologues — currently in production at the OB Playhouse, courtesy of Different Stages. The play is about crimes of sexual violence and the social institutions that support them, not holiday cheer; and the titular reindeer might as well be office workers or Congressional interns for all the relevance that a set of antlers adds to the story. But when you take in the view from 30,000 feet, the dark, unlovely picture painted by this play resembles the near-futile struggle of historic life above the arctic circle, which so many have endured with the odds stacked never in their favor. The reindeer sleigh is very nearly an artifact of history these days, surviving as much by the grace of children’s verse as by the efforts of Fennoscandian people to preserve their way of life. Meanwhile, in the 24 years thatReindeer Monologues has disturbed holiday audiences, little has changed regarding sexual harassment in the American workplace (and beyond). Would that those unrelated trends could have gone the other way.
Reindeer Monologues runs through December 17th.