When I was young, it was almost cruel to see the presents laid out under the tree on Christmas morning, knowing there were cows to milk first.

It’s a great trick, delivering gifts to all the boys and girls around the world, but you would think a man that industrious could have also taken care of the morning milking. I was jealous of the reindeer farmers on the North Pole, who only had to feed and water 12 deer after a fat guy was done with them. They didn’t have to go out into the cold to milk while the gifts waited in the house.

Years later, as an adult, I lived in Iceland. Like every other foreigner, I stopped the car to take endless long-distance pictures the first time I saw the reindeer in the fields. It turns out, they were imported in the late 18th century and placed on three different parts of the island. How does one react to seeing a near-mythical animal from the stories of their childhood? I got a reindeer burger at the gas station.

Santa and reindeerGetty Images.

In the late 1930s, Icelanders had believed the reindeer were entirely gone from the island – but after organizing a search, they found about 100 animals still remaining in the east. Without intervention, the population rebounded to a size of approximately 6,000 to 7,000 today. Every year, part of the herd is culled through the use of hunting permits, even if being used to gawkers makes them easy prey. However, Iceland is located close to the Arctic Circle. It can be assumed the deer on the island were those who didn’t make the cut for the sled. Hence, it doesn’t feel like ruining Christmas by throwing them on the grill.

Being a small, educated population, Iceland often ranks first in various per-capita categories. Historically, this has included practicing gender equality, being the happiest people on earth and drinking the most Coca Cola. Located so close to the North Pole and being in the reindeer game, I wonder if Icelanders get their Christmas gifts delivered first. Is that why they are so happy?

Having seen a reindeer in person and followed after them in a rented jeep (another thing foreigners do), I started looking into this storied animal. It turns out that, although it is unlikely reindeer farmers on the North Pole do much more than raise the animal for meat and flycraft, it wasn’t too long ago the species was milked. Most notably, the Sami, indigenous to northern Sweden, Finland and Norway, began to tame the reindeer in the Middle Ages. Too cold for cattle or other similar species, it was their only source of milk – even if a reindeer only gave a few cups a day. Nonetheless, with more than three times as much fat and protein as cow’s milk, it helped vary their diet for centuries.

Every child has to find out, sooner or later, that Santa Claus isn’t real. Farm kids have the extra element of the maturing process of having to go out and do chores before they can open presents. It’s part of the initiation for the life ahead. By now, I had thought that, as an adult, I saw the whole Christmas experience with clear eyes, having lost that sort of innocence. That was, until recently, when I found out a reindeer is the same thing as a caribou.

Maybe other people knew this already. Maybe I did read about it in a Ranger Rick issue as a child but somehow blocked it out of my mind. However, at least in our household, reindeer were majestic creatures featured in children’s stories and Christmas movies – and for all we knew might not have existed in real life. Caribou, however, were just above us in Canada. Nothing majestic ever comes from Canada (Celine Dion notwithstanding). I wonder now: Where was my science teacher on this? Are elves just seasonally unemployed construction workers or something?

One of our family’s Christmas traditions is to watch the 1964 stop motion Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer movie. It’s a bit of nostalgia for all generations. We nearly know all the lines by heart at this point. However, this time I will be watching the movie with new eyes, knowing Rudolph isn’t as exotic as we thought and how that glowing nose kept him from ending up in a gas station in Iceland.