Goats, Donkeys, Horses, and Reindeer: Santa’s Animal Helpers

Everyone knows that Santa Claus flies all over the world in his sleigh pulled by reindeer, delivering gifts to good little girls and boys. Right? Well, maybe, but reindeer weren’t always the jolly gift-givers animal of choice. Before the reindeer, there were other more common animals associated with Christmas, Santa, and gift-giving.

Goats

In Sweden, as well as other Scandinavian countries, there is a Christmas goat. He’s called the Julbock, or the Yule goat, and has a long history. Traditions vary slightly, but it seems that originally the Yule Goat had a connection to the grain harvest. By the 17th century, the grain-harvest goat had become a scary figure that roamed around on Christmas night, knocking on doors and demanding food.

Vintage Swedish Christmas card showing elves with Yule Goat. God Jul = Merry Christmas

But by the 19th century, the Yule Goat had been reformed and even began delivering Christmas gifts. Often one of the men of the family would dress as a goat and distribute presents. As time went on, the role of gift giving passed from the goat to little goat-riding elves who left their gifts while children slept. In some areas, children would leave barley in a shoe for the Yule Goat.

Another Swedish Christmas Card with a Yule Goat who looks to be accompanied by Santa Claus.

In time Santa Claus or Father Christmas took over from the elves, but sometimes he still took the Yule Goat along with him.

It seems that Father Christmas might have ridden his Yule Goat through Britain with a bowl of wassail. Illustration from 1836.
Swedish image from 1912 of elf riding Yule Goat loaded down with Christmas gifts.

Today the Yule Goat is represented mostly in straw Christmas decorations which harken back to his grain harvest connections. In cities and town squares much larger straw Yule Goats are made (and often go up in flames). The most famous one is traditionally placed in Gävle, Sweden.

A giant-sized Yule Goat in Gävle, Sweden

Donkeys

In France, Belgium, Luxembourg, and Switzerland, St. Nicholas comes bearing gifts with a donkey. Although St. Nicholas and Santa Claus aren’t technically the same, St. Nick was the inspiration for Santa Claus.

Sometimes Santa walks alongside the donkey who carries the gifts.

In the early history of Santa Claus (or Père Noël) in France, old Saint Nick would descend from the sky riding his flying donkey called Gui. They would land on the rooftops, then slide down the chimneys to leave gifts. Children would line up their shoes by the fireplace and fill them with carrots or apples for Gui. The donkey would have his snack, then Santa would refill the shoes with small gifts and sweets. In some parts of northern France this is still the custom on the Festival of Saint Nicholas on the 6 December.

Sometimes the little donkey has to carry Santa and the gifts.

Horses

In the Netherlands, Sinterklaas (Saint Nicholas) traditionally rides on a white horse. He rides around the countryside visiting schools and homes.

1840 Dutch woodcut of Saint Nicholas on his horse bringing gifts to children. There are also drawings of him on the rooftops (on his horse) and going down a chimney.

Reindeer

Today, in many countries, Santa Clause rides through the skies on Christmas eve delivering gifts from a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer. But as we’ve seen, the reindeer are a relatively new and curious mode of transportation. The earlier animals were all familiar ones that might be found on any farm.

This 1821 Illustration is the first to show a reindeer pulling Santa’s sleigh – and there is only one reindeer pulling the sleigh over the rooftop.

The first mention of Santa’s sleigh being pulled by these exotic horned beasts from the North appears in 1821 in a children’s poem called “Old Santeclaus with Much Delight.” The poem’s illustration shows a sleigh being pulled by a single reindeer.

On this vintage Christmas card, two reindeer are enough.

Then, in 1823, Clement C. Moore wrote his famous poem, “Twas the Night Before Christmas.” He tells us that Santa’s sleigh is pulled by “eight tiny reindeer” and he even gives us their names: “Now, Dasher! now, Dancer! now Prancer and Vixen! On, Comet! on, Cupid! on, Donner and Blitzen!”

After 1823 Santa had eight reindeer.

Then, of course, there is “the most famous reindeer of all.” Rudolph came along in 1939, more than 100 years after the original eight. He was created by Robert May, an employee of the Montgomery Ward department store. They wanted a little Christmas booklet to hand out to children in the store, and May was in charge of writing it. The result was the story of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Then in 1949 the song based on May’s story was recorded by Gene Autry. And, as they say, the rest is history. Today, Rudolph is generally considered the ninth reindeer pulling Santa’s sleigh

Cover of the book by May. Image source

Other Modes of Transportation

But, if some vintage Christmas cards are to be believed, Santa at times uses more modern or unconventional modes of transportation.

Santa decides to take the car, but apparently he’s waiting for his chauffeur.
Here Santa rides a bike and the reindeer run along behind him.
Here Old Saint Nick delivers gifts by some sort of air ship.
And the strangest one of all – Santa in a strawberry with wreath wheels pulled by little red elves riding on geese.

I hope all of you are enjoying the holiday season in whatever form it comes.

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6 comments

  1. I and my little granddaughter (2 and a half)! loved reading this post especially about the other animals that pulled Santa’s sleigh! We have been learning all about the Nordic traditions from Jacquie lawson’s online advent calendar, if you are not familiar with this site I think you might really like it! https://bit.ly/3a4BxW6
    Happy Christmas and here’s to a much happier and healthier new year take care!!

    1. Hi Caroline. I’m glad you and your granddaughter enjoyed reading about some of Santa’s animal helpers. I had a look at the advent calendar and it does look very nice. Thank you for the recommendation.
      Wishing you and your family very Happy Holidays.
      Best, -Margo

  2. I had and no idea that Santa Claus had so many different ways of bringing Christmas gifts! So interesting, Margo.
    I hope you enjoy your Christmas Season in all that is going on and Best Wishes for a Healthy and Happy New Year. Paula

    1. Hi Paula, I think the little donkey is my favourite of his companions. 🙂
      We’ll be having a very quiet Christmas this year (like many other people). But that’s okay.
      I hope you will be able to enjoy a happy and safe holiday season and an even better new year. -Margo

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