According to the annoyingly catchy Christmas novelty song “Dominick the Donkey,” Santa Claus rides a donkey because “the reindeer cannot climb the hills of Italy.” But can’t the reindeer fly, in which case hills would be more or less irrelevant?
Well, maybe not, since the famous poem that popularized the idea of flying reindeer, A Visit from St. Nicholas (AKA “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas”), also suggests that they might have some limits to their flight. The narrator first hears them “out on the lawn,” and they only take to the air when they “meet with an obstacle,” in this case so they can reach the top of the house. Is the implication, perhaps, that they travel on the ground except when they need to access chimneys? While I don’t know this for a fact, I have to suspect the idea of the reindeer and sleigh being constantly airborne developed as a more global society meant Santa had to visit everywhere in the world, and while that’s still not physically possible, it’s easier for me to imagine him zooming way above our heads than riding right through our neighborhoods. Still, it’s not like Italy is the most mountainous country that makes Santa a standard part of Christmas lore. Besides, they already have the Befana on Epiphany. Still, there have certainly been other cases of Santa riding on a local animal instead of a reindeer-drawn sled.
I’ve heard of guys in Santa suits recently riding camels to distribute presents in Jerusalem and Cairo, and there’s an Australian novelty song about his having kangaroos pull the sleigh, which sounds very uncomfortable for him.
Donkeys and camels already have some association with Christmas due to their part in the nativity story, with the former taking Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem and the latter being the mounts of the wise men. You probably wouldn’t be too surprised to know that not only do these concepts come from accounts in two different Gospels that aren’t fully consistent (the wise men are in Matthew and the journey to Bethlehem in Luke), but that the Bible doesn’t actually mention animals in either story.
Jesus is said to have ridden a donkey into Jerusalem for the Passover, but that would be associated with Palm Sunday, not Christmas. Donkeys and camels were common enough in that time and place that it’s not too much of a stretch, but it’s still extrapolating a bit. Come to think of it, didn’t Hanukkah Harry have donkeys?
One animal that’s been traditionally associated with Santa in long-standing folklore rather than just novelty songs or local pageants is the goat.
This is especially true in Scandinavia, although there are British depictions of Father Christmas riding a goat as well.
What I’ve seen is that the Yule Goat goes way back, with early interpretations being that he was a rather frightening figure who went around during Yule demanding gifts and leftover food and drink. Later, he came to be thought of as someone who gave out presents instead of taking them, although the tradition of dressing up like goats and begging still exists in some places. Another long-standing part of the holiday is making decorative goats out of straw. This is still done, but unfortunately they’re often vandalized.
The significance of the goat might derive from how Thor had a chariot drawn by goats, and the Yule Goat is sometimes known as Ukko, the name of an ancient Finnish storm god. Even though Finland has largely replaced the Yule Goat with a Father Christmas figure who lives in the country, specifically Korvaturnturi in Lapland, he’s still called Joulupukki, meaning “Yule Goat.”