A dozen reindeer jostle for their morning meal as rancher Daryl Simon, 65, pours a bucketful of oats into a trough on his 12-acre farm in Lake Crystal, Minn. (pop. 2,549).
While the animals are eating, Simon slips a bright red halter onto a young female and leads her into a horse trailer for a Christmastime appearance at a hardware store in nearby Mankato.
“Tilly is one of our favorites; she loves showing off for the crowds,” says Daryl’s wife, Yvonne, 63. “Tilly thinks the visitors are her herd.”
The Simons and business partner Bev Herda, 63, bought their first reindeer in 1993 after deciding to trade a hobby that costs money—raising and showing Arabian horses—for one that makes money. Today, the trio of retired schoolteachers owns Crystal Collection Reindeer, whose 40 animals compose one of the largest reindeer herds in the lower 48 states.
“We looked at raising everything from elk to emu,” Daryl says. “We fell in love with these calm and beautiful creatures.”
The reindeer ranchers breed and sell their animals, gather their shed antlers to make jewelry and knife handles and, from Thanksgiving through Dec. 25, haul the hoofed symbols of Christmas to festivals, shopping centers and parades across the upper Midwest.
During an appearance last December at C&S Supply-True Value store in Mankato, more than 300 people turned out to meet Santa Claus and to see Tilly, who pranced around her pen with antlers held high.
“I’ve seen Santa lots of times,” says Ayla Manthe, 3, visiting the store with her brother, Luka, 5, and father, Nathan. “I’ve never seen a reindeer!”
Store manager Dave Page has hired Crystal Collection Reindeer for holiday appearances the last 12 years. “Families love the tradition,” he says. “It’s great to get people into our store, but it’s worth it just to watch the kids’ faces.”
“That looks like Rudolph,” says Ayla, referring to Tilly. “But where’s his red nose?”
“Rudolph is at the North Pole,” Daryl explains. “This reindeer is a friend of Rudolph.”
Then Tilly starts jumping, like she’s trying to leap out of her pen. Kids cheer. “Can they really fly?” Ayla asks.
“One sunset we watched a group of reindeer in a line, taking turns leaping into the air,” Yvonne says. “We’ve seen them do that many times, always around Christmas. Makes you wonder.”
Native to northern Eurasia, reindeer were domesticated by nomadic herders thousands of years ago for their meat, hides and antlers. On the Arctic tundra, the animals eat lichen, moss and twigs and are used to pull carts and sleds.
In the United States, reindeer have been associated with Christmas since publication of the 19th-century poems “Old Santeclaus” and “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” which depict the jolly gift giver driving a reindeer-drawn sleigh. The 1939 poem “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” reinforced the animal’s association with Santa Claus.
Outside of Alaska, an estimated 2,000 reindeer live on ranches in the United States. The animals are raised as pets or livestock and fed hay, grain and sugar beet pulp.
“Raising reindeer can be like raising cows,” says Herda, secretary of the Reindeer Owners and Breeders Association. “It can also be intense, especially when the babies are born in spring.”
The Simons and Herda say their relationship with their reindeer—and the crowd reactions—make raising and renting the animals worthwhile.
“It feels good to see people get into the Christmas spirit,” Yvonne says. “Each time we have a show, everyone’s smiling and saying ‘Merry Christmas.’”