It’s that time of year again: Santa Claus puts on his ceremonial red and whites, loads up the sleigh with goodies, and harnesses his flying reindeer. A charming children’s story, right? Would you be surprised to learn that the original Santa was a shaman, and that both ancient and modern people in Siberia and other cold, snowy places have their sleds pulled all winter long by reindeer?
Artwork from thousands of years ago depicts reindeer flying. Images of reindeer in flight, with birds on their antlers balancing the sun, was a holy symbol for the indigenous Siberians. Even mummies from many millenniums ago have been discovered with these prancing mammals tattooed on their bodies. During an annual ceremony, medicine men and women would honor the reindeer by mimicking them in movement and through shamanic journeying, in flight. Then, community members would share gifts with each other.
Reindeer–or Caribou as they are called in other parts of the world–have always been revered as the bringer of gifts, for they have made survival possible for humans in the harshest of lands. Their adaptability to different climates is remarkable. They need no den in the winter, and in the summer they shed their fur coats to stay cool. Their sure-footedness allows them to cross the most arduous ice and rock. Physical strength, adaptability, instinct and herd-connectivity have made them the most enduring species. Today, they still thrive in places like Lapland, Russia, Mongolia and Scandinavia where there lands are protected.
There are two subspecies of reindeer: wild (Caribou) and domesticated (Reindeer). While they share similar characteristics, it has proven impossible to domesticate a wild caribou (though it is not uncommon for a domesticated one to escape and join a wild heard). This speaks to the soaring spirit of the Caribou: if Eagle represents freedom in flight, then Reindeer is freedom on the ground.
This holiday season, call upon Caribou to inspire you if you are uncertain about what gifts to shareor where the gifts will come from in these troubled economic times. Male Reindeer shed their antlers in autumn; the females wait until after their babies are born in the spring. All of our earliest relatives shed and grew their own symbolic antlers as they celebrated the winter solstice, mourning and rejoicing the pinnacle of death and rebirth, and looking forward to warmer days of regeneration. We can honor our ancestors and our animal brethren by thinking of them this holiday season when we see Rudolph’s red nose brighten like the sun.