From the editor:
Everyone knows reindeer fly because of magic. But few know the tale of where they got it—because all magic requires a trade, and flying doesn’t come cheap.
Barbara Krasnoff is Reviews Editor at The Verge, and is the author of more than 35 short stories, including the 2016 Nebula finalist “Sabbath Wine.”
From the author: Believe it or not, I've written an actual Christmas story about elves, penguins, magicians, and reindeer.
Listen, children, while I tell you how Santa’s reindeer got the ability to fly.
I’m sure that your older brothers and sisters have pointed out that the ability to fly doesn’t seem logical when applied to reindeer. They have no wings, to begin with, and they have considerably more body weight than your average bird. Even the kori bustard, which lives in Australia and can weigh up to 42 pounds and only fly short distances (and only when they’re forced) is a lightweight compared to the average reindeer, which will break your parents’ scale if it even breathes on it.
Of course, when your brother or sister insisted that reindeers couldn’t fly, your answer (very properly) was “It’s magic!” And you’re quite right -- it is magic.
But magic doesn’t just happen, and magicians can’t just wave their wands and make something appear, even though they'd like you to think so. There is a balance to the universe. Somewhere, somebody has to make a trade.
So here’s how it really happened.
It began with a poem. Back over 100 years ago, a man named Clement Clark Moore wrote a poem called “A Visit From St. Nicholas” and sold it to a newspaper, where it was published. The poem described how Santa Claus distributes gifts to households around the world by riding a sleigh pulled by eight reindeer.
It was a very nice poem, and very popular with the readers. Eventually, hundreds or even thousands of people read it. This made the author, and the publisher of the newspaper, very happy indeed.
However, not everyone was happy with the poem. Up in the North Pole, it caused a great deal of consternation.
“Eight reindeer!” yelled Mr. Santa, pulling on his mustache irritably. “Where am I going to get eight reindeer?”
“There are reindeer all over the place,” said the Elf In Charge of Action Figures, who happened to be on her break at the time. (SUET, or the Sustained Union of Elf Toymakers, negotiated a few centuries ago that all elves get a 10 minute break every hour. Toy making is hard work.) "You can't walk for more than a few feet without having to step around reindeer dung," the elf continued. "There are hundreds of them out there."
“Yes, I’m aware of that,” said Mr. Santa, whose roses were constantly being eaten by stray reindeer. “But tell me this: How many of them can fly?”
The Elf in Charge of Action Figures was forced to admit that she hadn’t met too many reindeer that could stay in the air longer than a high jump.
“This is a disaster,” Mr. Santa moaned. “Millions of children are going to expect me to show up in a sleigh with eight flying reindeer. What am I going to do?”
“Call a meeting,” suggested the elf. It was a good suggestion; sometimes problems that are completely unsolvable by one person can be solved by many people working together. So Mr. Santa sent out a message to Mrs. Santa and all the elves, and that evening, after dinner, they all came together in the auditorium to try to figure out what to do about the reindeer.
The meeting was chaired by Mrs. Santa (who handled all the administrative chores and who was much better at running meetings than her husband). “Okay,” she called from the front of the room as the elves all took their seats. “Settle down. The sooner we get this over with, the sooner we can go to the cafeteria for our nightly milk and cookie fest.”
"And fruit," yelled the Elf in Charge of Doll's Hair, who was on a health kick."
"Of course," said Mrs. Santa. She waited patiently until everyone was seated and quiet, and then continued.
“We’ve got the possibility of a real problem here. I’ve consulted with the leaders of the local reindeer herd. They said that they are perfectly willing, for the appropriate salary of course, to pull Santa’s sleigh. But first, we have to figure out how to make them fly.”
There was silence in the audience. Then one elf called out, “Jet packs?”
“Not a bad idea,” said Mrs. Santa, and wrote it down.
“Helicopters?” called out another, and “Maybe they can hang from drones?” yelled a third.
There were many shouted suggestions after that, and Mrs. Santa wrote them all down. “These are all great,” she said. “I’ll research them to see if any might work. Thank you!”
The elves, satisfied with their contributions and feeling very clever, all left the room and headed for the cafeteria for their milk and cookies (or fruit).
Mrs. Santa sat down wearily in one of the chairs and sighed. Mr. Santa, who had been hiding in a corner of the room (he hated meetings), came and sat next to her, as did the Elf In Charge of Action Figures, who had stayed behind.
“None of these will work, will they?” said Mr. Santa sadly.
“No,” said Mrs. Santa. “None of them will work. The reindeer are too heavy for drones, jet packs might set the sleigh on fire, and helicopters, well, they are so noisy they’d wake everyone up.”
They all sat dourly for a moment.
“Has anyone suggested using magic?” ask the elf finally.
“Magic means a trade,” said Mrs. Santa. “Remember when we realized we needed to stop time in order to get to all the children we needed to in one night? When we went to Mother Earth to negotiate the deal, in the end Mr. Santa and I had to agree to give up our youth in exchange for stopping time for one night.”
“You look fantastic in white hair,” said the elf soothingly, and Mrs. Santa smiled at her.
“Thank you,” she said. “That’s very kind of you. But I don’t see how we can get anyone to trade the ability to fly.”
She stood up and stretched. “Well, it’s nearly time for bed. Let’s sleep on it, and see what we can come up with.”
“Good idea,” said Mr. Santa and gave her an appreciative kiss.
A week later, nobody had come up with any ideas. The poem had become even more popular, and the letters from children were starting to talk about staying up to see the flying reindeer. Mr. Santa was becoming more and more irritable, and even Mrs. Santa, who was normally very even tempered, was seen to throw her favorite hat across the room in frustration.
Then one day, there was a knock on the door of the main workshop. Mrs. Santa, who was sitting disconsolately in her office, wondering what to do, stood up and answered the door.
“Hello,” she said.
Standing on the front porch were two Emperor penguins, looking very natty in their smooth black and white feathers. “May we come in?” they asked.
“Of course,” said Mrs. Santa. “Please do. Would you like to take some refreshment? You must be very hungry after your long journey.” They nodded gratefully, and she led them into the cafeteria.
(Now, at this point in the story, your older brothers or sisters may be saying, “But wait! Santa’s workshop is in the North Pole, and penguins all live in the southern hemisphere. How did the penguins get there?”
The answer you should give them is, “Well, they flew there, of course.”
And then tell them to wait until the story is over.)
Mrs. Santa served the penguins some water and sardines, and waited while they ate and drank. Then she made herself a cup of tea and sat down at the table with them.
“It’s lovely to see you, of course,” she said. “But what would bring you all the way here from Antarctica? That is a very long way to fly.”
The penguins looked at each other. And then the female took a deep breath. “We have come on a mission,” she said. “On the request of our chicks. And the bear cubs, and the whale calves. And also the children of our human neighbors.”
Mrs. Santa looked serious. “Is there anything wrong?” she asked. “I hope everyone is healthy.”
“Oh, everyone is fine,” said the male. “But all our young are very upset. They have been crying themselves to sleep at night. It’s very distressing to us parents.”
“What on earth could be the matter?” asked Mrs. Santa.
The penguins hesitated again. “Well, here it is,” finally said the female. “You understand, of course, that as animals, we don’t celebrate human holidays.”
“Of course,” said Mrs. Santa. “Everyone has their own holidays.”
“And many of our human neighbors don’t celebrate Christmas.”
Mrs. Santa nodded.
“Well, our children are starting to feel left out. We get the newspaper too, you see, and now they think that they did something wrong because Mr. Santa is not visiting them and giving them toys.”
The penguins paused. Then the male asked, “Would you be willing to accept letters from our children, even though we don’t celebrate Christmas? And drop off a few toys?”
“If you need some sort of payment…” the female began.
Mrs. Santa didn’t hesitate a moment. “Nonsense!” she cried. “Of course we will add all those children to the lists. How could you even doubt it? I’m just embarrassed that we didn’t think of it. After all,” she added, “this whole running around the world with a sled of toys is a relatively recent addition to Christmas. No reason we have to keep the toys to one segment of the population.”
“No trees or carols needed?” the female asked, with a touch of bitterness.
“No trees or carols needed,” Mrs. Santa smiled.
The penguins seemed to relax, although it was a little hard to tell, considering their normally straight-up postures. “Thank you!” said the female, and fluttered her wings a little. “That is such a relief. To tell you the truth, we weren’t sure what to expect.”
That was when Mrs. Santa suddenly had an idea.
“I’ll be honest with you,” she said. “There is a way you could help us in return. We’ve run into a bit of a public relations issue.”
She explained the problem about the flying reindeer. “I was wondering,” she said, a little nervously, “if you could, well, lend your ability to fly to the reindeer, just for one night a year. If you can’t, that’s fine, of course, and we’ll still visit your children. But this would be such a help to us.”
The two penguins glanced at each other, and then looked back at Mrs. Santa. “Of course, we’d be pleased to,” said the male.
“We mostly use our wings for balance anyway,” said the female. “We don’t need them for fishing, and we don’t tend to travel much. One night out of the year isn’t much to ask.”
She paused. “How many reindeer will we have to power?”
“The poem says eight,” said Mrs. Santa. “Do you think you could manage that many? I know that the comparative weights could be an issue.”
The male turned to her. “Oh, don’t worry about that,” he said. “I’m sure the entire penguin population will be happy to contribute. We’ve all been so miserable about our chicks, you see. This will be a huge relief to everyone.”
“Thank you so much!” said Mrs. Santa, feeling as though a huge burden had been removed from her shoulders. They all stood.
“I’ll contact you about the final arrangements,” Mrs. Santa said. “We’ve got a little more than a month before Christmas Eve, so that’s plenty of time. And I know a very competent magician who can handle the trade.”
And so, one month later, the reindeer and the penguins met the Santas’ magician up at the North Pole. They all stood around a large table, and with great ceremony signed a contract (there is always a contract when magic is concerned). Then the reindeer and the penguins, Mr. and Mrs. Santa, the elves and the magician, all had a wonderful party that lasted three days.
Afterwards, the penguins all flew home. And on Christmas Eve, the magician took the ability to fly from all the penguins in the world and gave it to eight of the reindeer that lived up at the North Pole near Santa’s workshop.
That’s how the reindeer were able to fly Santa to all the children in the world who had requested gifts for the winter holiday -- including the penguins’ chicks and all the other youngsters who had sent letters to Santa. And they’ve done it every year since then.
“Wait!” I hear your older brother or sister yell. “That isn’t right! Penguins aren’t able to fly any day of the year, not just on Christmas Eve!”
Unfortunately, in this case, your big brother or sister is right. But how the penguins lost the ability to fly all year long rather than one night a year is a whole other story. One whose moral is: always read a contract before you sign it.