Reindeer (Rangifer tarandus; also known as caribou, which is usually used in North America to refer to wild individuals) are one of the most well-known herd animals in northern regions. The most iconic reindeer are the eight (nine, if you include Rudolph) magical flying ones used to pull Santa Claus's sleigh in Christmas media.
Due to being adapted for cold climates, real reindeer have a very distinctive appearance, being very muscular and bulky for conserving heat (which is also what makes them excellent at pulling sleds), along with having thick fur coats and large nasal cavities to warm the air they breathe. Their antlers are distinctively-shaped, with multiple modest scoop-like "palms" on each, rather than the simpler spiky tines of most deer species, or the large single palms of moose and fallow deer. They are also the only deer species in which both sexes have antlers, with females keeping theirs year round and males shedding theirs in the winter.note
However, in drawn media such as animation, books, and artwork, Santa's reindeer are usually designed to resemble more generic deer, such as the species North Americans tend to be most familiar with- the white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus). They will have gracile bodies, slender muzzles with black noses, tined antlers, relatively thin fur, and females will often lack antlers entirely, while males keep theirs regardless of the time of year.
This trope is so widespread through Christmas merchandise that many audiences think reindeer aren't real animals, or that caribou and reindeer are two different species.
A Sub-Trope of Artistic License – Biology, Somewhere, a Mammalogist Is Crying, Informed Species and Funny Animal Anatomy. Can be considered the cervine equivalent to Zebras Are Just Striped Horses and Penguins Are Ducks.
Has nothing to do with All of the Other Reindeer.
- In Annabelle's Wish, all of Santa's reindeer are drawn to resemble generic deer. Including Annabelle herself at the end, after she is transformed from a cow to a reindeer with cow markings. They are also drawn with single, horse-like hooves instead of the cloven hooves real deer have.
- Averted with Sven from Frozen, whose character model is designed to look more like an actual reindeer rather than a white-tailed deer. If anything, Sven goes in the opposite direction of this trope because he is much larger than real reindeer - he is scaled more like a horse, able to pull a large sled or take two human riders by himself.
- For most of the movie; Sven has his antlers while running through winter snow. But this is a magic winter created by Elsa, taking place in summer when Sven would have normally grown a new set.
- The reindeer in Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer have deer-shaped heads with prominent noses, making them look like larger and burlier regular deer.
- The Polar Express: White Tailed reindeer are seen as Santa's sleigh pullers. Even more jarring when a herd of more realistic caribou can be seen earlier.
- Averted in The Christmas Chronicles and its sequel. The reindeer not only look realistic and accurate, but are explicitly stated to be female (hence, antlers in winter). If anything they're just a little big for proper reindeer, being closer in size to an elk.
- The Santa Clause averts this trope as well, as every reindeer in the film is an actual reindeer. Well, except for the CGI flying ones, of course...
- The Trope Codifier is Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and its various adaptations. Rudolph and the others were portrayed as generic deer in the 1939 booklet's original illustrations, and the design has stuck in all versions for eight decades since. Possibly because it's easier to draw a glowing lightbulb-like nose on a regular deer than a realistic reindeer.
- The Ur-Example would probably be 'Twas the Night Before Christmas, which describes Santa's reindeer as "tiny", even though anyone who's seen a real reindeer agrees they can be described as anything but tiny. Given that the sleigh itself is described as "miniature" and Santa himself is described as "a little old driver" and a "right jolly old elf"note , it's possible that Clement Clarke Moore intended to convey that the reindeer, the sleigh, and St. Nick himself were all on a miniature scale, being magical creatures - but the wording is ambiguous enough, and the idea is so at odds with all subsequent depictions of Santa that most readers miss it.
- In Sticky Business, the reindeer sticker part is designed after a white-tailed deer instead of an actual reindeer.
- Downplayed with Velvet in Them's Fightin' Herds. Her appearance is lithe and graceful, but she also has paired nostrils like real reindeer instead of a black nose like a typical cartoon reindeer, along with a fluffy mane of fur around her neck.
- DuckTales (2017): Averted with Santa's reindeer in "How Santa Stole Christmas!". They are all designed after real-life caribou and are stated to be female while possessing antlers. They also make horse-like noises, as opposed to deer-like ones.
- Santa's reindeer in Frosty the Snowman have identical designs to the wild deer seen setting up a Christmas tree with the other forest animals in an earlier scene.
- In the Madagascar Christmas special Merry Madagascar, the reindeer are designed to be small, petite, and adorable. Doesn't stop their leader, Donner, from being a tough and angry veteran with a thick Russian accent.
- My Little Pony: Best Gift Ever: Aurora, Bori, and Alice the reindeer lack most of the heavy build and extra fur that reindeer are normally supposed to have, though this could be some artistic liberties trying to make them all look more feminine. With that said, they are also downplayed examples in that they are depicted with antlers like real female reindeer, and paired nostrils instead of black dog-like noses other cartoon reindeer have.
- Rankin/Bass Productions' Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964) continues its source material's trend of designing its reindeer to look like generic deer, to the point where the female reindeer like Mrs. Donner and Clarice lack antlers. Worth noting is that the Japanese stop-motion animators used sika deer, a member of the Cervus genus along with red deer and elk, as a reference for the deer animation due to them being Japan's only native deer species.
- The Simpsons: Averted in "Homer's Phobia", where Homer, Bart, Moe, and Barney get attacked by reindeer that resemble real-life reindeer, including muscular bodies and moose-like noses.
- Averted in the 1932 Silly Symphonies short Santa's Workshop. Due to it predating the Trope Codifier Rudolph by seven years, Santa's reindeer in the short are drawn with bulky, muscular bodies and large noses◊ like real reindeer.