Rudolph: The Evolution of a Cultural Icon

Reindeer are a central figure in many modern Christmas celebrations. In the United States, children grow up listening to the song “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” on the radio, or watching him become Santa’s best buddy on TV. Yet as familiar as U.S. pop culture seems to be with reindeer, how much do we actually know about their behavior?

Rudolph from the 1964 film, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” [Source]

Protecting Deer Nature Antlers Reindeer Herd
Hey pretty lady, what’s on your head? [Source]
To start, let’s discuss the ornaments on their heads (holiday pun intended). Santa’s ungulate buddies are one of the only species in which both males and females grow antlers1. However, male reindeer shed their antlers in the fall at the end of their breeding season. Female reindeer keep their antlers through the winter in order to compete for vital, scarce resources during their winter pregnancies2. Specifically, they use their antlers to defend their food from both other females, and their de-antlered male companions. So, since all of Santa’s reindeer are depicted with a beautiful rack of antlers, every one (from Dasher to Rudolph) is likely female!

In addition to these ornaments, another classic feature of Santa’s reindeer is their collective efforts pulling his sleigh. This actually mimics natural reindeer behavior! Reindeer are herd animals, and form large groups that migrate together3. These groups are vital for protection from predation. Besides humans, who hunt them for food or sport, wolves are the biggest predator for reindeer. Herds will often use their staggering group size to overwhelm a lone wolf by running in highly synchronized, dizzying circles. This makes it hard for the predator to pick just one animal, and thus protects the herd as whole. Wolves are left out of the traditional Rudolph story, only to be replaced by the Abominable Snowman, a terrifying fictional predator of our beloved Rudolph.

Though interesting, their elaborate ornamentation and excellent teamwork don’t alone explain how reindeer became so popular in modern-day depictions of the holidays. Where did Rudolph’s role as a cultural icon begin?

Traditional reindeer herders in northern Russia. [Source]
Reindeer are part of a long, rich history in Russia, Norway, Finland and Sweden. Local people from these northern countries draw much of their identity from their close connection with these animals4. Traditionally, reindeer herding and husbandry has been the main source of economic activity in extremely northern villages. Over centuries, herders have made an art form out of creating and wearing specialized clothing designed to protect them from arctic temperatures. However, as more children receive access to education and move to warmer areas in search of jobs, the art of reindeer herding is slowly disappearing. Younger generations are simply less willing to adopt the nomadic lifestyle required by reindeer herding4.

However, it wasn’t until reindeer were transplanted to Alaska that they became a marketable holiday symbol5. Reindeer initially gained media attention due to their promising potential of providing the United States with a new meat source. As part of a clever marketing plan to introduce the general public to this species, Santa’s sleigh was pulled by reindeer and accompanied by herders in traditional dress in the 1926 Macy’s parade5. While reindeer meat never gained traction in the United States, this clever marketing ploy kick-started the public’s obsession with Santa’s reindeer5.

To this day, Rudolph is a household name in the United States. And, thanks to their charisma in pop culture, reindeer will continue to adorn our holiday decorations (rather than our plates)!

From all of us at The Ethogram, Happy Holidays!

Sure… this guy is anatomically correct! [Source]

[By: Allison Lau]


1Bubenik, G. A., Schams, D., White, R. J., Rowell, J., Blake, J., & Bartos, L. (1997). Seasonal levels of reproductive hormones and their relationship to the antler cycle of male and female reindeer (Rangifer tarandus). Comparative Biochemistry and Physiology Part B: Biochemistry and Molecular Biology116(2), 269-277.

2Tobias, J. A., Montgomerie, R., & Lyon, B. E. (2012). The evolution of female ornaments and weaponry: social selection, sexual selection and ecological competition. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B367(1600), 2274-2293.

3Reindeer Ethology. (n.d.). Retrieved December 18, 2017, from

4Zamarayeva, Y. S., Kistova, A. V., Pimenova, N. N., Reznikova, K. V., & Seredkina, N. N. (2015). Taymyr reindeer herding as a branch of the economy and a fundamental social identification practice for indigenous peoples of the Siberian Arctic. Mediterranean Journal of Social Sciences, 6(3 S5), 225.

5Galloway, L. (2012, December 23). How Santa got his reindeer. Retrieved December 18, 2017, from

Featured Image: Reindeer [Source]

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