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Reindeer Games: An exclusive interview with the keeper of Rudolph & Co.

NORTH POLE -- In just a few hours, the elves will have the sleigh all packed, and Santa will begin his whirlwind journey to deliver presents to boys and girls around the world. Pulling the weight of that heavy-laden sled will be Claus' specially trained team of reindeer -- Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donder, Blitzen and Rudolph.

The reindeer themselves declined an interview, citing the privacy clause in their contract with Santa, but their personal trainer and caretaker, Lars VanderHoofen, found a few minutes in his busy pre-Christmas schedule to answer a few questions about the enigmatic animals who play such a vital role on Santa's team.

How do the reindeer make it onto the sleigh team? Are there tryouts?

Well, uh, I have to admit there's a bit of nepotism involved. Blitzen, for instance, is Blitzen VI -- the great-great-great-great-great-grandson of the original member of Santa's team. If the reindeer isn't a legacy, he or she has to agree to take one of the original's names. I think Cupid's real name is Maurice.

Whether a reindeer relative or not, the candidate has to pass a grueling series of tests -- both physical and mental -- to see if they've got the "right stuff," and then has to intern for about a decade, waiting for a retirement, before making it onto the actual team. One fella -- I'm not going to tell you his name because I don't want to embarrass him -- put all that time into the program, and when he made it to the team, we discovered he was afraid of heights. Didn't take long for Santa to give him the boot.

Do the reindeer have to pack on the carbs just before Christmas Eve in order to make the round-the-world flight?

Yes, maintaining their weight throughout the journey is an issue. For about a week before Christmas Eve, their diet changes to complex carbohydrates and lean protein. It's a balancing act, and a dietitian oversees the entire process. We don't want them to pack on weight and become sluggish, yet they need the extra caloric intake to provide the stamina for the long journey.

How do you tell the reindeer apart?

Reindeer do not all look the same. They each have distinguishing features. And their personalities shine through: Cupid is quite the flirt; Vixen is always getting into trouble; Donder is the loud one in the group.

Is there a diva in the reindeer ranks?

You'd think it would be Rudolph, considering the song and the press he's gotten over the years, but Dasher can be more of a handful. He really likes the spotlight. There's a reason why his name is always listed first.

Are there reindeer romances?

Of course. Vixen and Prancer were all hot and heavy for a while, but Prancer just wasn't ready to settle down. Since he wasn't ready to prance down the aisle, Vixen gave him the cold shoulder. I think he'll come around eventually.

Where do the reindeer live when they're not making the global journey?

Santa provides deluxe accommodations for all his employees. The deer's dormitory is kind of a cross between a stable and a luxury apartment building. They each have their own suite, and when they're off the clock, they have access to amenities such as a fitness center, pool complex and a massage therapist.

How do the reindeer manage to make it all the way around the world in one night? Is there magic involved?

That's a question I'm not at liberty to answer. Actually, I'm not sure myself. That's something only Santa knows.

One last question: What kind of games do the reindeer play?

Dasher and Donder are crazy for golf. They can get a lot of holes in during the summer months, when the sun doesn't set up here at the Pole. Donder is kind of a duffer, but Dasher has a 5 handicap. There are a couple of elves who are eager to pick up a few off-season bucks by caddying for them. The rest of the herd sticks to the classics: Hide and Seek; Red Rover; Duck, Duck, Gray Duck. Once Christmas is over, they'll have some weekend pinochle tournaments when it's too cold to be outside. The does, however, prefer bridge.