Santa Claus & his reindeer
Photo by: Visit Rovaniemi

Santa Claus & his Reindeer

Have you ever wondered how Santa Claus chooses his reindeer? And why reindeer? And how you can experience a magical reindeer ride yourself?

You can’t separate the magic of Father Christmas from the magic of his reindeer. His furry helpers are in all the stories, the art, and the minds of Christmas lovers. But where did they come from? How does Santa choose them? And how can you meet Santa’s reindeer in person? Let’s find out!

The Story of Santa’s Reindeer

No one knows exactly when Lapland’s most famous resident decided that reindeer were the best transportation. And if you ask him yourself, he’ll probably just tug his long whiskers and become wistful. But we do know a few facts about Santa Claus’s reindeer. The first is that he has more than one but less than a million. How many exactly, though, he won’t say. (And in Lapland, it’s impolite to ask anyone, even Santa, exactly how many reindeer he owns.) The number is somewhere between not enough and too many. For most of the year, Santa’s reindeer are fairly indistinguishable from their brothers and sisters (save for one special red-nosed fellow), as they form herds and roam the great northern wilderness. But in autumn, Santa Claus and his elvish helpers gather the herds and separate the fastest, the most clever to begin training for the upcoming Christmas season. They train by sprinting, long jumps, and memorizing starcharts.

Santa feeding his reindeer
Photo by: Visit Rovaniemi

No Place Like Home

You may have noticed that reindeer don’t much respect the borders (or airspaces) of nations. Especially in the Arctic where borders are sometimes more suggestion than hard reality. Though the numbers can vary year to year, in total, there are around 700,000 reindeer in Scandinavia in total. They travel in herds, searching the Arctic forests and bogs and fellsides for food, while their herders keep a watchful eye on them. In the summer, they can roam great distances, and their special anatomy allows them to survive in even the harshest of winter conditions.

In winter, they travel in the north (though not usually so far as the North Pole), digging through the snow and ice for lichen, their favorite wintertime food. Lichen gives reindeer the energy they need to plow through the deep snow and across the long white distances. In summer, they eat bushes and grasses and more lichen. In autumn, their favorite treats are the wild mushrooms that pop up all over the forests like … well, like mushrooms! Big fluffy porcinis and chewy milkcaps and delicious russulas are some of their favorites. Reindeer can even eat mushrooms that are toxic to people, like fly agarics!

On your marks!

Because the Arctic is not the most friendly environment on Earth, reindeer must grow big and strong. Santa Claus works with Finnish and Sámi reindeer herders to single out the top specimens and draft them into his special Christmas herd. Males are usually bigger and faster than females, sometimes weighing up to 180 kg! But what does Santa look for in a reindeer? He wants them strong, with long bodies and big feet. Big feet means more speed. And big noses! The bigger the better, because big nostrils allow for more air, which usually means a more fit animal.

One way Santa spies potential recruits is by visiting reindeer races, a popular Lapland tradition. He loves to spend a sunny day watching the fastest reindeer in Lapland speed down the track, across frozen Lake Inari or even through the streets of downtown Rovaniemi. The fastest reindeer can run at speeds over 16 meters/second! (Almost 36 mph.)

Reindeer race in Lapland, Sata Claus Reindeer
Photo by: Markus Kiili | Lapland Material Bank
Reindeer race in Lapland, Sata Claus Reindeer
Photo by: Markus Kiili | Lapland Material Bank
Reindeer race in Lapland, Sata Claus Reindeer
Photo by: Markus Kiili | Lapland Material Bank

Your Own Magical Reindeer Ride

With 200,000 reindeer spread across Finnish Lapland, it’s not uncommon to come across them, both in wild and not-so-wild locations. Many reindeer farms, such as the Valle Holiday Village in Utsjoki or the reindeer farms of Posio open their gates for visitors to come and meet Lapland’s reindeer in person. In summers, you can meet with reindeer, give them a treat of lichen or take a reindeer selfie. As winter approaches, and the ground turns white and cold, reindeer like the ones at Salla Reindeer Park and Santa Claus Reindeer in Santa Claus Village are amenable to giving sledge rides through the frosty forests. For a truly unique experience, you can take a reindeer ride at night in search for the Northern Lights. The combination of Santa’s furry helpers, the dark and mystical Finnish wilderness, and the magical green fire of the auroras is not easily forgotten.

Enjoying a reindeer ride in Lapland
Photo by: Lapland Material Bank