By Chris McBeath

Despite every historical rendition, you can rest assured that Santa’s reindeer, from Rudolph to Blitzen, had to be a girl. But then the Sami, the indigenous people of Europe’s most northerly climes, have always known that.

As the traditional herders of these gangly, magnificent animals, the Sami in Norway and Sweden have exclusive rights over reindeer husbandry and its affiliated occupations. Indeed, if a non-Sami (a Daza) kills or wounds a reindeer in Norway, they could incur a fine of up to US$10,000.

Originally from Mongolia, the Sami (“children of the sun”), came to these polar regions some 10,000 years ago, settling as farmers and fishing folk in Finland, Sweden, Norway and Russia. Today, they number about 75,000, of which more than half live in Norway. Much of their culture shares a striking similarity to the North American Indian. Both have had to fight to retain their heritage and both have a kinship to nature that is expressed through ritual prayer, dance and inclusion of the spirits of their forefathers. Even Sami “lavos” have the same construction and purpose as the American tepee.

Despite their small numbers, the Sami are holding their own. They have had their own parliament since 1989, as well as their own flag, national day (February 6th) and the right to teach children in their mother tongue. A Sami has also served as the United Nations President of all indigenous peoples of the world, covering 70 countries.

Nowhere is the Sami’s way of life more contrasting than in Norway’s barren north where some 6,000 reindeer graze under the protection of the law and under the attentive eye of almost 4,000 Sami who roam the landscape as reindeer nomads. Reindeer eat profusely, dining on lichen and seaweed (their digestive systems are able to extract salt) as regularly as a ship’s watch: four hours of eating; four hours of rest. Managing and driving the herd is done through a tonal singing which seems to calm and cajole the reindeer’s skittish and obstinate nature. Herding is such a skilled art that many of the ‘Sami singers’ come to Kautokeino each spring to compete in the annual reindeer driving championships.

But it’s not an event where you’ll find Santa. His reindeer respond to a different call. And as the countdown to Christmas picks up momentum, not only does their status take on an enchanting quality, but their homeland around Cape North also bustles with activity. Cape North is the most northerly landmass to the North Pole and throughout December, it becomes Santa’s unofficial postal drop for millions of letters. Cape North is mystical place where the wind churns up great swirls of mist against imposing granite cliffs, and where at any moment, you half expect the clouds to part for an air-borne sleigh with reindeer dancing atop the currents. If they ever do, the Sami would surely know. Just as they know the sex of Santa’s reindeer — only the females hold on to their antlers through winter, to shed them in spring when they start to raise their young. Ergo, Rudolph is, in truth, a girl!