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Five Lies You’ve Been Told About Reindeer

Did Grandma get run over by one? How shiny are their noses, really? Let’s find out the truth.

The world is full of lies, and it’s hard to get through life without taking a few on board. Luckily, we’re here to sort the fact from the fiction, and find the plankton of truth in the ocean of bullshit. This week: Reindeer! Do the ones frolicking in Lapland have grisly backstories involving decomposing foliage? What do a herd of reindeer have in common with the crowd at a metal show? Grab an antler, and let’s head into the grotto of truth to examine some reindeer facts and myths.

Lie #1: Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer

If grandma dies in a running-over incident involving a reindeer, the odds are a lot higher that it was a case of her running over the reindeer rather than the other way round. Hitting a deer with your car can be deadly — deer cause about 120 deaths per year in the U.S., the second-highest of any animal (the highest is man). 

There are a lot of deer about. In fact, according to no less than esteemed science journal Nature, there are toooooo many. Deer overpopulation has placed a huge amount of plant species at risk, leading in turn to decreased bird populations, so yeah, Bambi (because the deer Grandma is most likely to collide with isn’t a reindeer but a white-tailed deer — the white-tailed deer is odocoileus virginainus, while the reindeer or caribou is rangifer tarandus) is kind of a dick. 

As for a deer mauling grandma, when they’re all horny in rutting season they sometimes attack people, but that comes earlier in the year for both kinds of deer than the festive setting of what we can all agree is a really suck-ass song. An 85-year-old woman was attacked by a deer in 2019, but in the middle of June, as far away from the Christmas Eve of the lyrics as you can get.

A paper published in the journal Conservation Letters argues that reintroducing cougars might be the answer to deer overpopulation, and that billions of dollars in property damage and health-care costs would be saved. The cougars would probably eat a person or so every year, but more lives would be saved overall by fewer collisions with deer. Perhaps a few years from now, “Grandma Got Devoured by a Cougar” will be a cheery winter hit.

Lie #2: Look at the Lovely Reindeer Doing a Dance!

If you’re the sort of person who watches a lot of animated Christmas songs on YouTube — a child, perhaps, or a parent, or a total, total unhinged lunatic — you’ve probably seen a few renditions (or, rather, reindeertions, thanks) of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer in which various anthropomorphized caribou do pleasant dances.

In real life, however, reindeer are bigger fans of the circle pit. To quote a headline from the mighty Kerrang!, “Reindeer Mosh-Pits Are Real and They Can Fucking Kill You.” Known as a “reindeer cyclone,” which admittedly sounds like a seasonal Syfy spinoff from Sharknado, the phenomenon occurs when a herd of deer are under threat — they move in this huge, confusing, terrifying counterclockwise whorl, a defense strategy intended, in the words of PBS documentary Wild Way of the Vikings narrator Ewan McGregor, “to confuse any predator, whether wolf, bear or viking.”

Put grandma in the middle of that, and yeah, she’ll get so, so run over. Grandma’s not coming home.

Lie #3: “Reindeer Games” is Directed by John Frankenheimer, It’s Probably Worth Watching

Reindeer Games isn’t at the top of anyone’s resume. Made in 2000, a period where Ben Affleck was averaging four movies a year, it’s probably fair to say it’s now chiefly remembered for a scene in which Charlize Theron, also in four movies that year, takes her top off. 

Violent thrillers set at Christmas are a bit of a thing. Half of Shane Black’s filmography — Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and The Long Kiss Goodnight — involves the holiday, along with Enemy of the State, Three Days of the Condor, L.A. Confidential and others. There’s something about people being murdered while festive music plays that we really respond to for some reason. Reindeer Games isn’t even the best violent thriller set around Christmas directed by John Frankenheimer — he made Ronin a few years before it. 

Frankenheimer had a really interesting career. Imagine both making movies and reanimating stitched-together corpses, ahaha, that’s a light-hearted Frankenstein joke, it’s Christmas, let’s all have a big laugh. But no, he was an interesting dude, working constantly in Hollywood for four decades and splitting his career between big action movies and social dramas, while also at one point making a film about a mutant bear while incredibly drunk. Among his movies are The Birdman of Alcatraz, The Manchurian Candidate and Seven Days in May. As the L.A. Times once put it, “You won’t find much romance or many complex leading ladies in a Frankenheimer film: For the most part his characters are men, real men, fighting each other or some outside force trying to destroy a way of life.” He was also good friends with Senator Robert Kennedy, and drove him to the hotel in which he was assassinated. Like I said, interesting guy.

Reindeer Games, however, is one of the shittiest, least interesting movies he made, involving a bunch of convoluted schemes and double-crosses that even a great cast can’t make work. The three main male characters are called Rudy, Nick and Gabriel, named after the red-nosed reindeer, Santa Claus and the archangel who announced Jesus’ birth, respectively, and spend a bunch of the film in Santa outfits. At one point, Gabriel (Gary Sinise) even shouts, “Don’t go playin’ no reindeer games with me!” but nobody ever goes, “Hey wow, we all have Christmas names, how fun!” It’s just, in general, not great. Theron says it’s the worst film she ever made.

Lie #4: Reindeer Are So Christmassy!

Is rotting flesh Christmassy? Is crafting a skeleton from rocks and pressing mud into it Christmassy?

The Kalevala is a Finnish epic poem constructed from various poems passed down through oral tradition for hundreds of years and written down in the 19th century, cited as an influence by J.R.R. Tolkien and a lot of the kind of metal bands that perform in woad. It contains 50 stories comprising of 22,795 verses: Hey, what a lot of verses, right? It’s a pretty extraordinary piece of work, important in galvanizing Finland into seeking, and achieving, independence from Russia

And it has reindeer, of course — Finland is, after all, the location of Lapland, associated with being the home of Santa. One Kalevala character is Hiisi, a demonic figure frequently invoked in curses — “may the slag of Hiisi fill your eyes” kind of thing — and who created a reindeer from rotting wood, swamp materials and branches. 

Another of the major characters in the Kalevala, and a key figure in Finnish mythology, is Ilmarinen. He’s a blacksmith-slash-god, a creator figure responsible for forging the sky, and once created himself a bride made of gold but couldn’t find happiness with her, a tale that is one part metaphor about greed, one part proto-Frankenstein, one part steampunk RealDoll.

In a non-Kalevala tale of Ilmarinen, he created Vaadin, a goddess and the ancestor of the reindeer (as well as, now, the name of a coding platform), to be his assistant. He made her bones from stone, her flesh from moss and her skin from bark. You never see any of this in mall Santa displays.

Lie #5: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer / Had a Very Shiny Nose / And If You Ever Saw It / You Would Even Say It Glows

Bioluminescence, in which a living organism produces and emits light, isn’t really something mammals display. It’s much more commonly found either deep in the sea (80 to 90 percent of deep-sea creatures are bioluminescent in some way), in insects like fireflies or glow-worms or in fungi. As renowned marine biologist Edith Widder told the New York Times, “Animals use light to help them survive, to help them find food, to attract mates and to defend against predators.”

A potential use for bioluminescence that doesn’t come up in Widder’s work is guiding a sleigh of reindeer. In fact, not only has no animal ever evolved a glowing nose for sleigh-related purposes, no mammals have ever developed true bioluminescence. (Interestingly, all 13 known species of bioluminescent insects evolved from a single source around about the same time the dinosaurs went extinct, while marine bioluminescence was a thing 350 million years before that. Why? Nobody knows!)

Bioluminescent mammals have been created in labs, though. In 1995, Stanford scientist Christopher Contag entered the record books by giving mice glowing salmonella. Glowing mice have also recently been used in the creation of, of all things, the coronavirus vaccine. And biofluorescence, where rather than emitting light, a creature reflects it back at a longer wavelength, has been observed in frogs, turtles, opossums, flying squirrels and platypuses.

It’s hardly a glowing mammalian nose, though, which is fine, as the whole story of Rudolph is bullshit. The rest of the reindeer are totally happy to make fun of him until they realize he might come in handy. All of the other reindeer can, frankly, fuck off.