By John Chambless
Santa gets all the attention at this time of year, but the hard work of making sure he gets all the way around the world has always fallen to the reindeer.
While Santa and Mrs. Claus are taking a well-earned break today after another long night of delivering presents all over the world, the Chester County Press managed to get a quick interview with one of his most important elves last week as preparations were being made for the big flight.
Melfiore (like all of Santa's elves, he uses only one name) is this year's Head Reindeer Wrangler at Santa's headquarters, and he answered a few questions via e-mail during a quick break.
Chester County Press: Thanks for taking some time to respond to some questions, Melfiore. We know it's a busy time.
Melfiore: It's always busy here at the Pole, but we get a few breaks every day for some hot chocolate and cookies. It's a good thing we elves work as hard as we do, or we'd all be overweight!
How did you get the job of Head Reindeer Wrangler this year?
We have a rotating team of Reindeer Specialists here. There are 20 elves studying under the Head Wrangler each year, and then the following year, one of them is appointed to take over for the season. It's based on merit, length of service and a tough test about reindeer that we take every year. I've become quite an expert on reindeer!
What are some of the things you've learned?
Let's see ... The reindeer have been around the Pole for longer than I have, but they only got names in 1823, when the poem "A Visit From St. Nicholas" put them down as Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Dunder, and Blixem. There have been some changes over the years -- Dunder was later changed to Donder or Donner. That means "thunder" in German, by the way. He's always bragging about that! Blixem has somehow become Blitzen over the years. That means "lighthing" in German, so those two are quite a pair of jokesters in the stable here.
What about Rudolph, the most famous reindeer of all?
Rudy was a fairly recent addition. He first gets mentioned in 1939, and of course, the song just made him a star. He tries to keep a level head about it all, though.
Does your team train the reindeer to fly?
Well, first of all, reindeer are pretty fast on their own. Did you know that they travel about 30 miles a day when they're just migrating? They can hit about 50 miles an hour at top speed on land. When a reindeer is only about a day old, they're already sprinting. The reindeer we use here are specially bred and they benefit from a big dose of Santa's magic to make them fly. That's a company secret, of course.
Of course. We don't want to pry. What do the reindeer eat? Do you have trouble finding food for them at the North Pole?
When they're living on their own, reindeer like to eat lichens -- that's moss -- which we have flown in especially for them. That's a whole other department here at the pole. There are three planes that operate out of Finland and other nearby countries to harvest the moss and bring it up here. It's a big operation! Santa's reindeer do get a lot of treats, though, and they do enjoy nibbling on the reindeer food left out for them by some children along the route. They asked me to thank everybody who puts out an extra snack! They have a weakness for Christmas cookies like we all do here, but Santa tries to keep them from cheating on their diets.
Do you elves and Santa watch any of the Christmas movies that have been made over the years?
Oh, sure! We all have our favorites. Some of them are really good. Some of them are pretty silly. Hardly any of them get the story right, though. Santa tries to not be too judgmental, but he can't help yelling at the TV, "Hey! That's not how the workshop works!!" But he realizes that Christmas is about magic and imagination, so whatever people come up with is usually OK.
Why has nobody ever found your location at the North Pole?
Well, you know Area 51, right? That's where the government has lots of secret operations going on. We're kind of like that, only we have the added benefit of a cloaking device that makes the whole Santa operation look just like snow and ice from the air. You can fly right over us and never see the buildings. But we're here. I don't think anybody is ever going to be able to get through our security.
Do you have any favorite reindeer?
They're all like my oldest friends, and they're each special in their own way. Every year, they complain about the big trip, but then on Christmas Eve, they can't wait to get going. A couple of hundred years ago, the reindeer were the only part of the vehicle that actually flew, but more recently we've added some boosters to the sleigh itself to get us across the oceans a little faster so we stay on schedule.
Does the Santa team monitor his progress around the world?
We do have satellite tracking and what we call the "Santa Cam" that follows him. The hard part is that he travels so fast that the journey can be over before you know it. I've watched the big map of the route every year for the past 123 years, and every year, I'm more amazed. I don't know how the big guy does it.
How did Santa pick reindeer to pull the sleigh. Why not horses?
Because reindeer have feet that adapt so well to their environment, such as ice and snow. They really do. They naturally live in cold climates, so when Santa was looking for animals to pull the sleigh in the old days, he picked reindeer because they're strong and fast and they're OK with very cold temperatures. And they're really a bunch of softies. They may look stern in some of the pictures you see, but they love Christmas like we all do. Oh, and they've got great balance. You every try balancing a sleigh full of toys on a steep roof? It's not easy. But they can do it!
Thanks so much for getting in touch with us. We'll let you get back to work!
Thanks for asking me. The big guy always gets the publicity, but it's the elves that do all the work! Don't put that in the newspaper, though :) Happy holidays everyone! On Dec. 26, we'll all have our feet up around the fireplace. There's always a lot of leftover cookies to eat!