The legend of Santa Claus goes way back, and branches off in many directions. But he has only used reindeer to pull his sleigh full of toys for the past 200 years or so... or at least that's as far back as the research goes. This article at Cryptozoology hints at even earlier beginnings. The veracity of this research is documented at the bottom of the page, but it's an interesting read. The true story of how Santa harnessed his reindeer is comparatively recent.
In 1821, William Gilley published a booklet for children about "Santeclaus", entitled A New Year's Present, to the Little Ones from Five to Twelve Number III: The Children's Friend. It was the first literary reference connecting reindeer with Santa.
Old Santeclaus with much delight
His reindeer drives this frosty night.
O'er chimneytops, and tracks of snow,
To bring his yearly gifts to you.
The tradition become part of our folklore with the publication of A Visit from St. Nicholas by Clement C. Moore in 1823 (better known today as Twas the Night Before Christmas). This poem named the standard 8 tiny reindeer. They were named Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Dunder, and Blixen. In the 1823 newspaper version of the poem, the spelling Blixem was used, although it was changed to Blitzen when Moore published the poem under his own name. The spelling of the original Dunder was changed to Donder and then to Donner in some modern versions.
Rudolph and all of the other reindeer, after the jump.
The character Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer was created in 1939 by Robert L. May as an advertising gimmick for Montgomery Ward. The store distributed millions of coloring books featuring Rudolph between 1939 and 1944.
Rudolph became the subject of a Max Fleischer cartoon in either 1944 or 1948 (sources list both years).
May's brother-in-law Johnny Marks wrote a song about Rudolph, which was featured in the cartoon. It was recorded by Gene Autry and became a hit in 1949.
Rudolph got another boost in popularity when Rankin-Bass produced a stop-motion animated Christmas special of the story, which first aired in 1964. Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer became the longest-running holiday special ever.
Following the popularity of Rudolph, the reindeer population at Santa's village grew considerably in popular culture. Many of these were relatives, assistants, or rivals to Rudolph. Robbie the Reindeer is the son of Rudolph and a character in two BBC comedy specials.
Olive, the Other Reindeer was the subject of a 1997 book and a 1999 Christmas special produced by Matt Groening. The title is a pun from the line "all of the other reindeer.." from the Rudolph song.
Country music stars have attempted to duplicate the success of Gene Autry's recording. In the 1962 Ray Steven's song "Santa Claus is Watching You" (rerecorded in 1985), more reindeer were added to the herd, namely Bruce, Marvin, Leon, Cletus, George, Bill, Slick, Do-right, Clyde, Ace, Blackie, Queenie, Prince, Spot, and Rover. You may remember Clyde as the camel from Steven's earlier song "Ahab the Arab". Loretta Lyn had a song in 1974 named "Shadrack, the Black Reindeer". Shadrack helped an aging Rudolph to lead the team that year. In 1995, Joe Diffie released "Leroy the Redneck Reindeer", who led the team one year when Rudolph had a cold. That's 28 reindeer. There should be enough deer to cover all exigencies.
As you leave out milk and cookies for Santa (or whiskey, depending on your generosity), be sure to leave some reindeer food for Rudolph and his cohorts! Here's a recipe. Kids can either sprinkle this on the lawn (easier to find if it's covered with snow) or leave for Santa to feed the reindeer himself.