Many of us are intimate with the tale of Santa Claus and his travels across the world yearly on Christmas Eve, bestowing gifts to every expecting child. His sleigh, elevated into the sky by nine reindeer is a fantasy to some and a lasting tale of wonder for generations of children. Reindeer have played a major role in cultures around the world, especially in the subarctic landscapes of Norway, Russia and Finland.

Wild reindeer still roam the Arctic Circle, seasonally migrating through tundra, mountains and woodland habitats of northern Europe and Russia. In North America, reindeer are referred to as caribou, though still the same species, and they are completely wild and untamed. There are about 3.5 million caribou in North America and 1 million wild reindeer in northern Europe and Russia.

More than Imagination: Reindeer’s Cultural Legacy Through Time

Reindeer have been a fundamental feature of many communities and cultures for over 2,000 years—a history long enough to inspire a long-lasting presence in our holiday music, books and movies. In fact, ancient rocks have been found in parts of northern Europe and elsewhere depicting humans’ long-standing relationships with reindeer.

Reindeer first became domesticated in Europe and Russia thousands of years ago by Europe’s only Indigenous people, the Sami people. The Sami are the descendants of nomadic peoples who inhabited northern Scandinavia for thousands of years. They have existed for generations in a region known to many as Lapland. To the Sami people, Lapland, the region of northern Europe that stretches across northern Norway, Sweden, and Finland and into the Kola Peninsula of Russia, is referred to as Sápmi. Reindeer herding is integral to the Sami people and their culture and today, there are nearly 3 million domestic reindeer living in northern Europe.

Reindeer don’t exist in the U.K. anymore, but archeological evidence has proven that they once did. Climate change and hunting are likely to blame for their slow disappearance. Even so, reindeer remain a staple in English celebrations. In Abbots Bromley, a village in Staffordshire, England, a yearly folk dance known as the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance has reindeer at the center of the celebration. During this ritual, dancers carry six sets of 1,000-year-old reindeer antlers. Believed to have started in 1226, it is one of England’s longest-standing medieval rituals.

The longstanding relevance of reindeer across cultures is what lends to the animals’ continued prominence in popular culture. Equally relevant are the cultures and habitats that have maintained reindeer populations across the world.

Deer in winter in Lapland.

Arctic Adaptations 

Reindeer have adapted quite well to the arctic climate of Lapland. Temperatures regularly plunge below freezing, and the land is blanketed with snow and ice for a large portion of the year. The eyes of reindeer have developed to be sensitive to ultraviolet light, helping them navigate the dark, cold winters of northern Europe. Their noses are designed to warm the air before it gets into their lungs, and as the animal exhales, the breath is cooled so that water vapor stays within the body. A double layer of insulating fur keeps body heat trapped, preserving vital energy needed to survive. In the summer, the hooves of reindeer expand as the ground becomes softer and, in the winter, they shrink and harden. The sturdier hooves help them pierce and dig through the snow for food. As herbivores, reindeer feed mostly on lichen, a nutritious mix of algae and fungi, which constitutes the majority of their diet.

Reindeer are the only species in the deer family where both the males and females carry antlers. Antlers, unlike horns, are shed each year, and male reindeers shed their antlers in late autumn. Females, however, retain their antlers until the spring, needing them to dig up the snow and ice, uncovering food that will help them sustain their winter pregnancies. Because of this, scientists believe that the reindeers that carried Father Christmas’s sleigh were all female.

Man watching Aurora borealis in lapland winter.

How to Explore Arctic Lapland 

Though reindeer and other species have had to adapt to the snowy climate of Norway, Finland and Russia, explorers can traverse the Arctic Circle in relatively cozy conditions. The colder weather comes with some magical winter excursions that are too unique to miss.

With Natural Habitat Adventures 10-day European Arctic trip you will discover diverse nature, history and cultures across Finland, Norway and Russia. You’ll travel over tundra, taiga and steppe as you visit several historic cities and villages. A private train takes travelers from St. Petersburg over the Arctic Circle to Norway—guests will have exclusive access to the Golden Eagle’s sleeping quarters, lounge, dining and bar car, as well as personal butlers for the entire journey. Travel thousands of miles in comfort, catching sights of the boreal forest and frozen lakes as they fade into the twilight.

While in Russia, immerse yourself in the imperial grandeur of St. Petersburg, and its magnificent cathedrals and art museums. Before arrival in Finland, nature lovers will explore Pasvikdalen, the border region between Russia and Finland. After strapping on some snowshoes, travelers explore Pasvikdalen, which is the biggest remaining tract of old-growth pine forest in the region, and witness the rare bird species that inhabit this diverse landscape.

When you cross the border into Finland you’ll explore a reindeer farm in the municipality of Inari, the hub of traditional Sami culture. With guidance from Sami elders, you can get a glimpse of Sami life, learning about the history, customs and daily activities. Private lodging at Inari Wilderness Lodge places us in the center of Sami culture. The Siida Museum and Nature Center open-air museum in Inari showcases the rich and varied history of the Sami people and their role in modern-day Lapland.

Quite possibly one of the world’s most enchanting natural marvels, the aurora borealis is on display in northern Finland for about 200 days a year. Once we’re tucked into our warm Aurora Cabins for the night, the quest continues as you survey the illuminated night sky through your glass roof. Your Nordic outdoor adventures continue with an exhilarating dog sled ride on the frozen fjord. Afterward, we head to the famous Snowhotel Kirkenes, built entirely of snow and ice.

As a participant of Nat Hab’s Aurora Quest, you’ll travel with top naturalist guides who are also well versed in the cultural history of the regions we visit, providing expert interpretation of the diverse environments. No other travel company provides the same opportunities to create intimate relationships and memories of the Arctic’s most prolific landscapes and animals.