The Natural History of Christmas Part 1 – The Night Before Christmas

The Natural History of Christmas Part 1 – The Night Before Christmas

Clement C. Moore’s classic poem Twas The Night Before Christmas, written in the 1820s and known to many, describes the “elf” St Nicholas making his home deliveries of presents, and the delight of a small child in seeing this happen. It’s clear that Moore was an ardent lover of nature, as there are no fewer than 12 references to plants, animals or animal behaviours in the poem, nearly one per verse. So what are these natural features that are so strongly associated in our minds with the festive season, and how do they relate to a New Zealand?

REINDEER: Of course, any discussion of natural history and Christmas quickly turns to reindeer. Moore takes 3 verses to get to reindeer, but they are a major part of the poem, and he names them one-by-one  (Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner & Blitzen…but no mention of Rudolf) and goes into some detail about their pawing and prancing, and fancy foot work. They are likened to eagles in their flight. Magnificent! I wonder if Clement Moore ever saw reindeer during his lifetime, or just imagined them.

Strolling reindeer (Rangifer tarandus) in the Kebnekaise valley, Lappland, Sweden. Image: 20070818-0001-strolling_reindeer.jpg: Nattfodd. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike
A reindeer in its natural habitat, Lappland, Sweden. Image: Alexandre Buisse (Nattfodd) License: CC-BY-SA 3.0. Source: Wikipedia

Reindeer are among the few species of ungulates (hooved animals) common in European folk-lore, but which we have been lucky to avoid amongst the many species introductions to New Zealand. Some 53 species of land mammal have been introduced to New Zealand and 32 are established as  free-ranging populations in our forests and tussock-lands (e.g. pigs, goats, cats, ferrets) or are restricted to farms or households (e.g. Alpaca, guinea pigs). As a good holiday travel game, try naming all of them!

Many species of browsing herbivores were brought in for harvest, so why not reindeer? They were successfully introduced to two islands of similar latitudes and isolation to New Zealand. On both South Georgia and Kerguelen Island, reindeer have become major predators of plants, and caused problems of erosion. Indeed at the 7000 square km Kerguelen Islands, the plant species named after the site, the Kerguelen Cabbage, Pringlea antiscorbutica, has become restricted to a few fenced enclosures due to browsing by reindeer and rabbits. On South Georgia, reindeer were introduced by Norwegian Whalers over 100 years ago , and the animals devastated the vegetation there. As a result, there has been a massive effort by the Government of South Georgia during the last two years, leading to the humane removal of more than 6,600 reindeer from the island, assisted, ironically, by Norwegian reindeer herders. So perhaps happily, New Zealand’s reindeer populations have remained imaginary rather than real.

MICE: Moore’s poem starts: Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse. Now mice are not necessarily a logical Christmas connection in Europe, where many of our Christmas traditions originated, or in America, where the writer of this poem lived. However as a small, cute animal that has direct contact with householders, it is the subject of much folk-lore. It is often depicted as a friendly, welcome intrusion into the store-cupboard. Perhaps mice fit the cute ‘baby-face’ concept better than most other household fauna (?cockroaches, rats, spiders?) with their big eyes, large ears and twinkly noses. Consider The Tale of Two Bad Mice by Beatrix Potter or the wood-mice who sing Christmas carols to the dear little mole in the Wind and the Willows by Kenneth Grahame.  In the UK, there are several species of mice and woodmice which are considered an important part of the terrestrial ecosystem.

The House Mouse, Mus musculus. Image David Illig, Copyright David Illig.
The House Mouse, Mus musculus. Image David Illig, License: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0. Source: Flickr.

In New Zealand, however, the mouse is not so welcome, either in houses or in the wild. Only the domestic mouse, Mus musculus, is present in New Zealand. A ‘variant’ of the house mouse is considered to exist on a Foveaux Strait island, Ruapuke, on which a French trading vessel the Henrietta grounded in the 19th century. The larger version of the house mouse found there is affectionately termed the ‘Henrietta” by the local community. The smaller house mouse is present throughout the New Zealand mainland, and also on many offshore islands where  they prey on plants, invertebrates and small seabirds. They are considered more difficult to eradicate than rats, having smaller home-ranges, so more dense application of poisoned baits is necessary to eliminate them.  A major effort is underway to eradicate mice from Antipodes Island in the Million Dollar Mouse Project. On one South Atlantic sub-Antarctic island, Gough Island, the house mouse has evolved to become a major predator of seabirds such as albatrosses and petrels nesting there. But love them or hate them, mice seem to be here to stay in New Zealand, unless Predator Free New Zealand achieve their vision.

Mouse at Gough Island, South Atlantic, having depredated a seabird. Image: Ross Wanless, Copyright Ross Wanless.
Mouse at Gough Island, South Atlantic threaten seabird populations by feeding on the chicks, alive and dead. There is concern among biologists that this behaviour might develop in mice at Antipodes Island, New Zealand. Image: Ross Wanless, Copyright Ross Wanless.


SAINT NICHOLAS: Aside from botanical species with relationships to Christmas (to be covered more eloquently in later blogs by my botanical colleagues), the other references to natural history in Twas The Night Before Christmas are to St. Nicholas himself. He’s referred to as an ‘elf,’ and we’re told he’s plump, jolly, diminutive, and red-faced. He was sporting a long white beard, was wearing fur, and was rather shabby-looking, having just slid down the chimney. Let us examine what manner of creature he could have been. He drives a reindeer sleigh; wears furs; is short, dumpy, red-faced and has a long beard. Deductions? He may have come from the Arctic (hence the furs) – or be very rich (furs could be very expensive if bought);He may have psoriasis of the liver, or a circulatory disease or have been exerting himself in the cold (resulting in red cheeks); He may also be from Western Europe, where he collected the reindeer, using them to around or he may have appropriated these animals on his travels. He sounds more like a dwarf than an elf to me. Perhaps Clarke was a better observer than he was a taxonomist. Connections with New Zealand? I’ll leave it up to the reader to decide about that.

Comparison of the morphometry of a dwarf (left) and elf (right) suggests a dwarf is more likely to be the creature masquerading as St Nicholas in Moore's poem.
Comparison of the morphometry of a dwarf (left) and elf (right) suggests a dwarf is more likely to be the creature masquerading as St Nicholas in Moore’s poem. Image: Andrew Becraft. License: CC BY NC-SA 2.0 Source: Flickr




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