A behind-thescenes look at the Antler Airborne Academy - By Amber Lanier Nagle
A behind-thescenes look at the Antler Airborne Academy
It was by far the most treacherous of all of the writing assignments of my career. From the moment I stepped off the helicopter and watched it take off without me, I started having second thoughts about my decision to travel to the Arctic Circle — the top of the world — where average wintertime temperatures are a frigid minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit.
But I felt compelled to do the story — and honored. I had been hand-picked by Santa Claus himself to write an exclusive exposé about the Antler Airborne Academy, the top-secret reindeer training facility with the long list of impressive alumni including Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner, Blitzen, and yes, even the most famous reindeer of all, Rudolph, who leads the herd with his flashing red nose. No journalist had ever been invited onto the campus before, but in the wake of several scandals plaguing the sport of horse racing, the North Pole communication team wanted to be proactive and reassure the public that Santa’s reindeer are very well cared for. So they invited me to visit (all expenses paid by the fat man) and see for myself, and so I went.
The North Pole is what you might imagine — a frozen mirage of white on white. Layered in parka-like clothing and insulated rubber boots, I trekked half a mile through the vast snow-covered candy cane forest and another half mile across peppermint glaciers, the snow crunching underfoot and the jinglejangle of distant sleigh bells being carried by the wind. Finally, I made it to Santa’s workshop.
The door swung open and exposed hundreds of elves in pointy hats scurrying around work benches filled with toys galore in all stages of production. Seconds later, a wee little elf with bright red hair and a clipboard stepped forward and extended her hand upward toward me. I took her tiny hand in my own and shook it gently.
“Hi, I’m Annika,” she said in a high-pitched elf voice. “I’m Santa’s Communication Director. Thank you so much for coming. We’ve been waiting for you to visit. Please follow me.”
Annika turned on a dime and led the way through a maze of toys and work spaces, her short legs moving briskly, and her high heels clicking on the wooden flooring with each step.
“The Academy is this way, just behind the workshop,” she said.
We passed Santa’s office and Mrs. Claus’ kitchen. Then I saw a break room where a handful of elves huddled at tiny tables eating pimento cheese sandwiches, drinking hot chocolate from paper cups and looking down at their cell phones. Finally, in the rear of the building, Annika flung open the back door revealing more Tundralike terrain, an expansive red barn, and a wide open area about the size of four football fields enclosed by tall fencing like that of a state penitentiary, but without the razor wire at the top.
“Here we are,” said Annika, twirling around with her arms skyward. “Welcome to the Antler Airborne Academy — AAA, for short. This is the secret reindeer Hoofin’ It
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boot camp I told you about a few weeks ago when we spoke by phone.”
And that’s when I first saw the giant creatures. The reindeer (or caribou as some call them) were much taller and more massive than Georgia’s white-tailed deer. For reference, I am 5 feet 8 inches tall, and they seemed almost eye level with me. Their thick furry coats were dark brown with white and pale gray accents. Their dark marbly eyes resembled those of cows and horses, and some of the reindeer balanced large branched antlers on their heads, while others did not.
“Think of this place like the training ground for SEAL Team Six or Delta Force, but instead of training big, strong men for special military missions, we are training big, strong reindeer for one of the most important missions there is,” Annika continued. “This is the place where Santa’s reindeer are transformed from frolicking forest dwellers to precision flying machines. This is where they hone their abilities and learn tricks of the trade that will prepare them for their Christmas Eve excursion with “The Boss,” and I’m not talking about Bruce Springsteen. I’m talking about Santa!”
Annika chuckled at her own joke as I continued to take it all in. Some reindeer pranced along a slushy trail, while others ate from a pile of mosses and grasses. Reindeer are herbivores, by the way, and eat vegetarian diets.
Seemingly out of nowhere, a large caribou made a hard landing a mere 10 feet from where we stood. I flinched at the sudden commotion then steadied myself, and Annika laughed.
“Don’t worry,” she said. “We’ve gone 50 years without an accident or incident here at AAA. That’s a pretty good safety track record, don’t you think? Please mention that in your newspaper story. We need good publicity.”
Annika turned and walked toward the entrance of the barn.
“This way,” she said. “I’ll introduce you to our head trainer, Yanic. He’ll answer any and all of your questions.
Inside the barn, as my eyes adjusted to the dim lighting, I noticed a phrase written in huge lettering across the back wall. It read, “Teamwork makes the dream work.” Several reindeer huddled in different areas of the covered space — all eyes following me with great curiosity.
“Thereheis!”Annika said, pointing to a man shuffling toward us. “Amber, this is Yanic, our reindeer trainer extraordinaire. Yanic, this is the writer I told you about.”
In his late fifties or early sixties, Yanic was tall, muscular, and very hairy — like a bigger, beefier version of Grizzly Adams. His beard and mustache were so bushy that I wasn’t sure he had a mouth. His big leather boots laced all the way up to his knees, making him look a bit like a giant lumberjack standing next to pixie-like Annika. And on the top of his head, he wore a thick knitted cap, like the kind you wear on an Alpine ski trip.
Sensing he was a no-nonsense kind of guy, I quickly launched into my questions after the introduction.
“Howmanyreindeer train here?” I asked. “We have 49 reindeer here now,” Yanic remarked. “We’ve had as many as 80 here before, but right now, there are 49.”
“Why so many?” I followed up. “I mean, Santa only uses nine reindeer to guide his sleigh at Christmastime, right? Why are there so many here?” Hoofin’ It
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“They are spares,” he snapped. “Substitutes. Standbys. Understudies. Replacements.”
“We train a bunch in case there are problems,” Annika added. “For example, what would we do if all of Santa’s reindeer came down with a stomach virus on Christmas Eve? We certainly can’t cancel Christmas, right? We have to have a pool of able-bodied reindeer that are ready to step in at the last minute in case one or more of Santa’s first string reindeer can’t perform their very important duties or he or she just needs a little time off to deal with a family situation — like the birth of a calf. It’s about mission readiness here.”
I nodded in understanding.
“Are you referring to Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, and the others? Are those Santa’s first string reindeer?”
“Yes,” Annika replied.
“The first string reindeer train here and recertify each year,” Yanic said gruffly.
According to Yanic, the reindeer are recruited in a process similar to how football players end up in the National Football League (NFL). A team of Antler Airborne Academy scouts with names like Sven, Thor and Njord comb the subarctic regions of the world in search of reindeer who can jump very high and stay in the air for long, extended periods of time (they refer to the long interval in the air as “hang time”). The most exceptional reindeer are invited to the Academy for evaluation, and the team is looking at more than advanced physical abilities.
“We are looking for candidates who are friendly, have positive attitudes, and enjoy hard work, long hours, and working with others in a team environment, as well,” said Yanic. “We are also looking for reindeer who are open to believing in the magic…” Consider these statistics Yanic shared with me. Last year, in 2022, 230 reindeer tried out for the job, but only 50 were invited to stay at Antler Airborne Academy, train, and participate in the elite reindeer games.
“Some just don’t have what it takes,” Yanic added. “Of the 50 we kept last year, one recruit bit another reindeer in its hind quarters during the second week, and we kicked him out of the program for aggressive behavior, which took us down to 49. We run a tight ship here. Monkey business and bad behavior are not tolerated.”
The caribou recruits who make the initial cut are invited to stay at the training camp and enroll in a series of courses that prepare them for the around-theglobe Christmas Eve flight. While at Antler Airborne Academy, recruits receive a modest salary, food, and a roof over their heads. The lucky reindeer who eventually graduate from the Academy after weeks of training and testing are given the same package, but with a higher salary, five weeks of vacation and Planned Time Off (PTO), and an attractive benefits package that includes superior health and dental coverage and a matching 401(k) program up to five percent.
CLASSES AND COURSEWORK
Yanic escorted me through the barn, and we occasionally stepped inside stalls to listen to instructors teaching subjects to small herds of recruits. Our first stop was in a classHoofin’ It
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room stall teaching
World Geography I.
“We must ensure that all of the pupils are well-versed in the current world map,” Yanic said. “Classroom instruction starts with continents and oceans before diving into countries, lakes, rivers, and ponds. There are a lot of countries to keep up with — around 200 — and the reindeer are expected to know them all, along with capitals and landmarks.”
We stood in the back of the stall and watched as a very tall woman pointed to a large map on the wall and discussed some of the newer countries of the world.
“In Africa, South Sudan split from Sudan in 2011 and became the Republic of South Sudan,” I heard her say. “And in 2008, Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia. It’s located in the Balkans region of Europe and is officially the Republic of Kosovo.”
Yanic whispered, “In World Geography II, the reindeer learn more about the countries and their terrains through interactive games and simulations. It helps them practice and become familiar with the many landmarks of the world — the Statue of Liberty in New York, the Eiffel Tower in Paris, the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, etc. A high level of geographical knowledge is essential for reindeer helping navigate Santa’s sleigh on the big night.”
In the next classroom stall, four reindeer listened attentively to a lecture and jotted down notes with their hooves about Navigation, with an emphasis on celestial navigation. Guided by a seasoned expert, the reindeer learned to identify constellations in the nighttime sky, track the North Star, and use stars and planets to guide Santa’s sleigh around the world and through the vast darkness. There was some discussion about compasses, modern GPS devices, and paper maps, as well.
“Celestial navigation is almost failproof,” Yanic whispered. “Sometimes devices don’t work, but the stars and planets never fail to show up. They are always up there.”
We moved on to another stall where reindeer were busy with some kind of hands-on training.
“Welcome!” the young instructor said when we eased into the stall. “This is the Advanced Troubleshooting course. We work on skills to help the reindeer handle any unforeseen challenges that may arise on Christmas Eve. We cover things like flying through inclement weather and fixing various sleigh malfunctions with a small toolkit that Santa keeps on the back of his sleigh. Our reindeer must be able to think on their hooves and work together to overcome big and small problems on the fly.”
In another area, the Communications classroom, reindeer were being taught how to communicate more effectively with Santa and one another.
And in the Magic classroom stall, reindeer first seemed to be meditating, but I was told that they were learning to open themselves to the magic of Christmas and allow themselves to be used for the purpose of spreading goodwill throughout the world. A teacher stood at the front and talked soothingly to the herd, as if to hypnotize them.
“Close your eyes,” the teacher said softly. “Now, imagine yourself as you float up, up and up toward the moon. Now you are flying. Feel the cool wind on your face as you look down upon the tiny rooftops below …” Yanic whispered, “Physically, they have the ability to leap high and hang in the air, but the magic keeps them up there. The magic is the most important part of the equation. They learn to believe here, and when you believe you can do something, you can do it, and do it well.” As we approached the last stall in the barn, a dozen or so reindeer leaned over paper quizzes, frantically filling in the bubbles of multiple choice questions.
“Is this the testing area?” I asked.
“Yes,” Yanic answered. “We test them to ensure that they fully understand the training material. If they don’t pass a particular subject, they are allowed to sit through the lectures once more and retest. If they don’t pass the second time around, they have to wait a full year before they can try again. We don’t mess around here.”
I stood behind a reindeer and peered over his shoulder so I could read the entries on the last page of the test.
The first said, “True or False? Santa Claus is real.” And the reindeer had marked the circle next to the answer, “True.”
The last said, “True or False? The magic of Christmas is real and allows extraordinary things to occur that may seem impossible.” The reindeer had also marked the circle next to the word, “True.”
I nodded to communicate to Yanic Hoofin’ It
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that I was ready to leave the testing area.
After the reindeer attend the classes and successfully pass a written exam, there’s one more class they have to pass. The actual flight school is a mandatory final requirement of the program.
Just outside the barn, we observed a track area where reindeer waited in a single file line. One by one, the reindeer raced toward a mark on the track, then leapt high into the air. We watched each of the creatures circle the field high above us — their legs kicking forward and backward as if they were running through a forest instead of across the clouds. Then each made a gentle, effortless landing on the other side of the field.
“Wow, look at them go,” I said, marveling at how well each reindeer could fly.
“They believe they can, and so they do,” Yanic responded. “They practice taking off and landing for several weeks. Then we begin training them to fly longer distances — like training runners to run marathons.” After they build up some endurance, the reindeer are sorted into teams of four, harnessed together, and they train as a team. Again, they fly all around the North Pole in an effort to build up strength, endurance, and the skills to make the eventual aroundthe- world flight. “How are they evaluated?” I asked.
“Santa performs the final evaluation,” Yanic said. “In the final trial, we hook them up to Santa’s sleigh in teams of eight. We load the sleigh with boxes full of sand and lead, and Santa himself takes the reins and runs the final trial. Just after dark, he calls them each by name and commands them to take off. He guides the team to Sweden, then over to Iceland, then across Northern Canada to Alaska, and finally back to the North Pole. Along their journey, they land on several rooftops and take off from small cul-de-sacs. They fly around mountains and skyscrapers. They dodge airplanes. The trial takes several hours to complete, and afterwards, he makes his decisions.”
There are no letter grades at Antler Airborne Academy. It’s either pass or fail. The reindeer who attend the classes, pass the written examination, and receive a passing grade in flight school are invited to stay on permanently, with the understanding that in case of emergency, they may be called upon to pull Santa’s sleigh on Christmas Eve.
There’s even a graduation ceremony complete with an elf marching band and confetti cannons. Santa makes an inspirational speech and praises each reindeer for his or her hard work and perseverance. Then Santa calls each reindeer’s name, and one by one, they walk across a stage and receive a special red graduation harness studded with sleigh bells and LED lights.
Yanic pulled up photos on his phone and showed me smiling reindeer celebrating on graduation night with flutes filled with bubbly champagne. In one photo, a new graduate posed with Rudolph — his nose shining like a red lighthouse beacon.
“So that’s what we do here,” Yanic said. “Any questions?”
Yanic had shown me the process, but I needed to make sure that none of the recruits were being overworked, bullied, mistreated, kept against their will, drugged with steroids, or abused in any way.
After a long pause, I asked, “Would it be possible for me to talk to someofthereindeer going through the program alone?”
I could tell that my request bothered Yanic. He thought he was done with me. He gazed across the snowy field and scratched his beard with his hand, then he looked at me and said, “I guess. Who would you like to talk to?”
I pointed to two giant reindeer who had just landed on the other side of the field. Yanic blew a whistle and made a hand gesture for them to head our way, and the reindeer trotted over to us. He introduced me to the two reindeer recruits, Aurora and Everest, and then Yanic turned and walked away, leaving me to interview two arbitrary reindeer without the influence of the trainer.
Aurora was a very large female recruit with a large, curved rack of antlers. Indeed, reindeer are the only deer species in which females grow antlers.
Aurora told me that she was from the Yukon, a wild mountainous, Hoofin’ It
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sparsely populated territory in northwest Canada and as a calf, she dreamed of becoming one of the reindeer who pulled Santa’s sleigh across the sky.
“I was very young when I first heard the sleigh bells and looked skyward,” she said. “I watched them fly overhead, and I knew that I wanted to do that when I grew up.”
I cleared my throat. “Has your experience at Antler Airborne Academy been a good one?” I asked.
“Absolutely,” Aurora said without hesitation. “I’ve learned so much, and I’ve met a lot of great reindeer here. We’re a big happy family. We all share a bond, because we love Christmas, and we all want to help in any way we can. Pulling Santa’s sleigh is what all of the reindeer here dream of.”
“Has anyone — human or creature — been mean or cruel to you, in any way?”
My question seemed to annoy her.
“Absolutely not!” she replied. “Everyone here is nothing short of wonderful.”
“I’m sorry but I have to ask — have any of the teachers or trainers injected you with steroids or other agents to help you enhance your performance in any way? Or do you know of instances when a reindeer took a doping agent on his or her own to perform better?”
Aurora looked me right in the eye and answered.
“No. Listen to me when I say this: That is not allowed or tolerated here, nor is it necessary,” she said. “Once you train and build up your strength and endurance, and once you truly believe in the magic, you can do anything. Anything! Believing in the magic is more effective than any drug could ever be at enhancing performance.”
Everest nodded in agreement. “We also submit to random drug testing by a third party testing facility that isn’t affiliated with Santa, Christmas, or the North Pole in any way,” Everest added to the conversation. “Reindeer that test positive for anabolic steroids or blood doping agents are sent home immediately and never allowed to return. They are questioned about where they acquired the steroids, and an independent panel investigates each incident. If trainers or assistants are involved in acquiring or administering the drugs to the reindeer, they are terminated and prosecuted in a North Pole court of law.”
“We haven’t had an instance in over 50 years,” Aurora interjected. “No one here feels there is a need for anything like that.”
I looked at Everest and Aurora and asked my final question.
“What’s it like to work with Santa? Please be honest. Is he as kind and good as he seems to be?”
“We all love Santa,” Everest said. “He’s the best. He’s as kind and wonderful as every child in the world knows him to be. He’s got a heart that’s the size of the sun and lives his life so that everyone feels his love and compassion.”
I asked if Santa has a temper when things don’t go as planned. “If Santa has a temper, he has hidden it from all of us,” Aurora chimed in. “I’ve never even seen him mildly irritated. I’ve never heard him raise his voice in anger. He’s jolly and encouraging all the time. That’s just who he is.”
And they noted that Santa has a playful streak, too. Twice a year, Santa and the elves file out onto the field of Antler Airborne Academy, just as the sun is setting, and all the humans and reindeer engage in an epic snowball fight.
“The reindeer games usually last for about thirty minutes, and by the end, we are all so exhausted and out of breath from playing and laughing so hard,” Everest said. “Then we sit out here in the moon glow of the early evening and everything gets still and quiet. Santa builds a blazing bonfire, and we sing Christmas carols and roast marshmallows for S’mores. We reindeer love marshmallows, by the way! And while we eat, Santa announces the MVPs of the snowball fight and gives out a few tinsel trophies. With that said, that evening always reminds us that we are one, big, happy family, united by our love of Christmas and our desire to serve Santa — and the world — on Christmas Eve.”
I was done with my interviews, and after a quick trip to the Human Resources office to review a few personnel records, I was ready to write my thorough assessment of the Academy. I said my goodbyes to Yanic and Annika, and I waved farewell to the herd of reindeer and the elves. An hour later, I was back in a helicopter and headed home to Georgia.
I did not uncover any concerning, troubling, disturbing, or unlawful behavior at the North Pole facility — no animal cruelty, no bullying, no cover ups, no widespread steroid use, etc. I found nothing but love and fellowship on campus. Indeed, Antler Airborne Academy seems to be a safe environment that promotes and fosters love, kindness, honesty, helpfulness, knowledge, and physical fitness above all. The recruits and graduates are the best of the best.
The Academy stands as a testament to the meticulous preparation and training that Santa’s reindeer undergo for that ever-so-important Christmas Eve mission. Santa, the trainers, and instructors of this institution ensure that each reindeer emerges not only as a physically able draft animal, but also as a beacon of joy and readiness — ready to carry the spirit of Christmas to the farthest reachesoftheglobe. The Academy’s commitment to the humane treatment of its recruits and graduates was evident at every turn of my tour, and the Academy’s devotion to excellence ensures that, under the starry, starry sky, Santa’s mission of carrying gifts and love throughout the world will be successful year after year after year.
The reindeer who graduate from the program are prepared, happy, well cared for, and spectacular creatures. May Santa’s sleigh team soar with grace this year and every year, and may they continue to embody the magic and wonder that define the holiday season.