When the originators of the Santa Claus myth built up that jolly ol’ fella dressed in a red robe with white trimmings, focused on an awfully important task of delivering presents to well-behaved children around Christmas, they probably did not realise the impact this character would have on many generations to come. Nor would they have foreseen humankind’s distorted reality of the charming creatures that pull Father Christmas’ sleigh, given that a significant number’s first — and possibly only — encounter with these animals is through this folklore.

The fact is, reindeers don’t fly.

Reindeers, which today are found in a number of countries such as Finland, Greenland, Alaska and Canada, were traditionally relied upon as a transportation option during winter, as roads had not come into being.

Over in Lapland, people would strike a deal with a reindeer herder, paying to move themselves and their belongings in reindeer sledges across the wilderness. Not only were these hooved creatures the only means to get around in Sápmi — the land of the Sámi people, they were also among the animals hunted by the northernmost indigenous people in Europe, for their meat and fur.

While using reindeers as solely a mode of transportation is now practically unheard of, visitors to Lapland, particularly parts of Finland, Sweden and Norway, can participate in reindeer safaris to get a taste of Sámi culture and heritage. But before we city dwellers embark on that reindeer adventure, here are some useful pointers to mentally prepare for what could be the ride of a lifetime. Tips below are provided by Nutti Sámi Siida, an ecotourism company based in Jukkasjärvi, Sweden, and Finnish travel service provider Lapland Safaris in consultation with reindeer herders Mr Markku and Mrs Satu Nicodemus.

1. Understand and appreciate the Sámi way of life.
Unlike huskies, which were brought into Lapland to boost tourism, reindeers are much more closely tied to the indigenous people. Katja Bechtloff, sales and booking manager at Nutti Sámi Siida, pointed out that reindeer herding in the Swedish part of Sápmi is strongly bonded to Sámi heritage.

Herders are Sámi, and the reindeer safari is usually part of a bigger experience that will educate you about their culture and day-to-day life.

2. Slow down and enjoy nature.
According to Mr Markku and Mrs Satu Nicodemus, reindeers can run up to 60km/h. However, the pace during a safari is “very relaxing” and allows participants to enjoy nature. This is because the reindeer are all tied together with the first led by a safari guide who sets the tempo.

“Don’t run or hurry — leave the hustle to the hotel or home.”

Bechtloff agreed, noting the pace is sometimes speedy but mostly slower. “There is no real rush. It is a speed decided by the reindeer and by the driver.”

3. Respect the animals.
Remember also that while the animals you are in the company of have been trained and tamed by reindeer herders, they are wild by nature. Make them feel at ease, and you will, too.

Reindeer feeding in Saariselka

Be circumspect of the reindeers, Nicodemus advised. They do not take well to strangers coming very close to touch them or their antlers during the initial meeting, and you should never charge at them or stand on the sledge. Don’t try to ride them either — participants in safaris always sit on the sledge, and a maximum of two persons can go on one sledge.

Reindeer are also quiet animals, so safaris are typically a relaxing and quiet experience.

4. Get involved.
Don’t assume that your job is to sit back, relax and let the guide and the reindeers do the work! Reindeer safaris are not for couch potatoes; you have to play your part, starting from paying attention during the pre-ride briefing.

Guests, Bechtloff noted, need to be flexible and adaptable. At times, they need to “assist the reindeer” by giving the sled a slight kick. Reindeer sledding is an active activity and participants must not be intimidated by the animals.

Nicodemus added: “Behave calmly and respect the reindeer, and follow the safari guide’s instructions. Dress warmly and keep your mind open for a new experience!”

Editor’s note:
Centred around the Northern Lights experience, Quotient’s 9-day Finland independent travel itinerary lets you seek out the true colours of nature, whether by staying in an igloo, or dashing through the snow on huskies, skis and snowmobiles. At Saariselkä, head out to the wilderness on reindeer sledges and sip Finnish coffee under the beautiful cosmic displays.

Quotient does not currently have any ready-to-go Northern Lights or reindeer experience itinerary to Swedish Lapland, but is able to offer it as a customised trip. Contact our travel consultants online or call 6435-0922.