I’ve been helping up at Reindeer House for a good few years now and, after moving back to England, have had to supplement my reindeer fix with helping at Christmas events near to home. I thought it might be interesting to put together a few thoughts and impressions gathered over the years.
I never cease to be fascinated at how people react to the reindeer. Yes, there are occasional doubters, but the herders are always happy to explain how the Cairngorm reindeer, with 1000s of years of domestication in their blood, and a familiarity with people and handling, seem quite happy to take a short trip away from their free-range life on the mountains.
I remember Magnus at Carlisle Races one Christmas. The reindeer pen was set back from the track, but quite near to the large screen which displayed the action. His eyes were glued to the screen when a race was on, only pausing to follow the horses, his head slowly moving right to left, as they galloped past on the track. This cycle was repeated until a race finished.
I chuckle when I recall being on the M6 in the reindeer van one snowy year. As we drove past one of those huge illuminated signs, displaying the message ‘Is your vehicle ready for winter?’, I couldn’t help thinking of the six reindeer and sleigh in the back. Now THAT’s what I call being prepared!
Some questions from the crowd become predictable (Which one’s Rudolf? Did they fly here? Where do they live?), but antlers (‘horns’) fascinate people. You do need to be sure, though, that no Santa-believing child is nearby when explaining why our Christmas reindeer have antlers. One year an antler broke off whilst the team were being harnessed up for the procession. There was a gasp from the onlooking crowd, followed by silence, then a solitary voice exclaiming ‘You’ve broken your reindeer!’. Cool thinking by the herders and a quick swap around saved the day.
Other questions have included: ‘What are they – donkeys?’. And often there are wide eyes and gasps of ‘But they are real! – and I don’t mean from children. It’s that magic, and the dawning realisation that reindeer are real creatures with very special needs, and not just props in a seasonal fairy tale, which make these encounters worthwhile.
Then there are dogs… The places where I help out are very doggy orientated, and folk like to bring their pets along to the Christmas events – some even lifting them up to get a better view. I can only assume that many people think of their dog as a child substitute, and cannot understand that, to a reindeer, it’s a wolf. Most owners will back off quickly when this is politely pointed out, but it was hard to understand the one who tried to push his dog through the barriers so that he could take a photo of it with the reindeer.
Reindeer characters come and go, but this years star for me has to be Svalbard, who spent much of the event attempting to eat the artificial sleigh decorations. By the end of the day the wreath was part dismantled. I’m not convinced, though, that Alex’s suggestion of making them out of real holly to deter nibblers would go down too well with the herders who have to dress the sleigh.