Q: How do reindeer fly?

A: Reindeer, also called caribou, are members of the deer family. Santa chose reindeer to pull his sleigh through the air on Christmas Eve for three very practical reasons.pexels-photo-246576

First, their natural habitat is cold northern climates near the North Pole, including Alaska, Canada, Russia, and Scandinavia. Second, reindeer were first domesticated about 2,000 years ago, just in time for the first Christmas. Finally, and most importantly, reindeer are excellent swimmers. Their well developed muscles used for swimming are well suited for flying through the air.

The vast majority of reindeer seem unable to fly. As far as we can tell, those with the ability have only been seen flying between dusk on Christmas Eve and dawn of Christmas morning. We are able to determine this through analysis of detailed records kept by NORAD, the North American Aerospace Command. NORAD is a military intelligence agency of the United States and Canadian government that monitors the air space over North America.

Since 1955, NORAD has been tracking flying reindeer through military satellites and radar. To track the flight of reindeer for yourself, visit the NORAD Santa tracking web page at www.NORADSanta.org or download their free app for your smartphone.

With all we know about these fascinating creatures, modern veterinary science has been unable to discern exactly how these large animals are able to get off the ground. We are left to conclude it must be one of the mysteries of creation and a very special part of the miracle of Christmas.

Q: How does Rudolph’s nose glow?

A: One of the most interesting areas of biology is the study of bioluminescence, or the ability of living organisms to produce light. Ninety percent of deep sea marine life has this ability. On land, most people are familiar with light emitted from fireflies or glowworms.

Bioluminescence is produced by a chemical reaction where a specialized enzyme oxidizes a unique type of pigment. The reaction produces a “cold” light where less than 20 percent is thermal radiation. It is very likely Rudolph is able to generate this type of chemical reaction within his nasal tissues, resulting in his famous glowing nose.

Each year all of Santa’s reindeer are examined by a veterinarian to be sure they’re healthy enough for their annual flight around the world. The examinations have revealed that Rudolph’s uniquely glowing nose causes him no pain.

Since this glowing nose serves a very important function, veterinarians have never risked damage to it by taking tissue samples to find out for sure how the light is emitted.

However, the veterinarians who have examined Rudolph and Santa’s other reindeer have published a web site with some of what we do know about these remarkable creatures. To read up on them, please visit www.avma.org/KB/Pages/Santas-Veterinarian-Answers-Kids-Questions-About-Santas-Reindeer.aspx.

Q: One favorite tradition in our family is the arranging the animals of the nativity scene. Each year the children delight in setting various animals around the stable. Where did this tradition come from?

A: Animals were an important part of the very first Christmas. The Virgin Mary rode to Bethlehem on the back of a donkey. When no lodging could be found, Joseph and Mary took shelter with animals in a stable. When the baby Jesus was born they laid him in a feeding trough, or manger. The first to learn
of the birth were shepherds tending their sheep in surrounding pastures. Eventually, camels carried Magi from the East to worship the newborn king. Every accounting of that first Christmas recalls the important role of animals.

In the year 1223, in the town of Grecio, Italy, a new Christmas tradition was born. Perhaps the most famous lover of animals, St. Francis of Assisi, arranged the first nativity scene for the local Christmas celebration. This first crèche included a donkey, an ox, and people dressed as the Holy Family. St. Francis’ idea spread from that small town in Italy around the world and through time.

Today it is a common custom to display a nativity scene in the home commemorating that very first Christmas… animals and all.