By Jenny Neyman
For kids visiting Santa, there’s some imagination required. There’s the big guy in the red suit, of course, usually some candy canes and maybe a decorated tree, faux fireplace or prop sleigh to add to the effect. But the bulk of Santa’s magical world — the North Pole, the elves, the mountains of toys — is up to the kids to conjure.
But on Saturday, kids coming to see Santa in Soldotna got a look at a real, live part of Santa’s entourage — his reindeer.
As Santa visited with kids on the seat of a sleigh, Comet and Crash the reindeer munched away at a bale of hay, obligingly providing an antlered backdrop to the photos parents were snapping.
“Will you leave me some cookies?” Santa asked 6-year-old Kaydynce Bowman. “You know what the reindeer like? They like carrots and apples. Can you leave some carrots and apples out for Santa, too, and the reindeer will be really happy, OK?”
After a “Merry Christmas, ho, ho, ho,” and a candy cane, Bowman crab-walked over to her dad, not wanting to take her eyes off Santa’s furry transportation system.
Though it wasn’t the Comet, of course. Nor is Crash a nickname for any of the other eight famous reindeer. Those guys are saving their strength for their big night come Christmas Eve, but they’ve got a couple of cousins in Nikiski willing to stand in their stead, even if they won’t actually be pulling Santa’s sled.
Comet and Crash belong to Jenna Hansen. She got her first, Crash, four years ago as a Junior Market Livestock project for 4-H. She raised a steer and a reindeer that year, but could only sell one animal at the fair auction.
“So she decided to sell the steer and keep the reindeer because he was so well trained and so good with people,” said Jenna’s mom, Hara Hansen.
Comet arrived the next year.
“She’s trained quite a few horses and she always seems to end up with people’s problem horses,” Hansen said, noting the training similarities to horses. “But they are like a moose where they do strike out in pretty much every direction. And they did when she first got them, they could be quite aggressive. And, of course, the antlers are pretty sharp. They are so much fun but they really aren’t for the feint of heart to raise, either. You need to have large livestock experience to be able to raise a reindeer.”
Once word got out of reindeer on the peninsula — they have their own Facebook page now, Scene of the Crash — various organizations starting asking Jenna to bring them as photo ops to raise money for good causes. Three years ago she attended a candlelight vigil to raise awareness of homelessness among teens and youth on the Kenai Peninsula.
“That just touched her heart that there were actually homeless kids in our area. We had no idea,” Hansen said.
In the last three years Jenna and her reindeer have raised over $6,000 for the cause, the first year purchasing items for families in need, the next donating to Soldotna Rotary’s Empty Stocking Fund, and last year and this year donating to the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District’s Students in Transition program.
Jenna is a freshman in college and hasn’t gotten home for winter break yet, so her mom and friends in the Redoubt Pony Club handled Comet and Crash’s appearance Saturday at First Alaska Insurance in Soldotna.
“She is coaching us via phone and text message, but she has done such a fabulous job training the reindeer that it really is quite easy. They’re very calm,” Hansen said.
A pony club — actually for horse riding, rather than just ponies — is steeped in English riding tradition.
“Everything from jumping to cross-country, to three-day evening to dressage to fox hunting to polocross, to pretty much everything you can think of that you can do in an English saddle, you can do in pony club,” Hansen said.
She said the club has been invaluable in helping with Comet and Crash’s appearances while Jenna is gone, and includes plenty of experiences for adults, as well as younger riders.
“I am a pony club member and I get to do all the clinics and all the lessons and everything that the kids get to do, so it doesn’t end when you’re 18. It goes your whole life, so I really, really like that because I like to continue to learn,” Hansen said.
Handlers had a rope on each reindeer’s bridle, just in case they swung their antlers too wide, and would shoo them back into place if they started to drift a bit, but for the most part they were content to munch their hay and ignore the traffic rumbling by on the Kenai Spur Highway and the squeals from kids and booming “Ho, Ho, Hos” from Santa.
When it was Sawyer and Kylee Vann’s turn to deliver their wish lists — Lego sets, for the both of them — Santa made sure to introduce the reindeer, too.
Sawyer, 8, was a little unsure of the situation
“Mmmmm… they were…. they smelled kind of a little weird,” he said.
His sister was a little more impressed.
“I thought that it was really fun getting to see them because, well, they’re reindeer. How many times do you get to see them a day?” she said.