Reindeer are ticklish.
I know this because I tickled one over the weekend.
You can tickle a reindeer, too, and you should, because it's either this or get trampled at the shopping mall from now until Christmas. Tickling reindeer is way more fun.
With pals Anne and Ray in tow, I set out Sunday to find Maryland's only reindeer farm, about 50 miles north of Baltimore in the rolling hills of Harford County. And we found Maryland's only reindeer farm all right -- in Pennsylvania.
The 100-acre Applewood Farm straddles the Maryland-Pennsylvania border (and the Mason-Dixon line) in thick, forested countryside that was coated in white after last weekend's first snowfall of the season. The Christmas trees and pumpkins grow on the Maryland side of the farm. The reindeer live in Pennsylvania, as farmer Brian Adelhardt emphatically pointed out. Reindeer are illegal in Maryland. What a bunch of scrooges.
You will not find Dancer, Prancer, Donner or Blitzen at Applewood Farm. But you will find Spruce, Sassy, Molly and Minnie, a small herd of genuine Alaskan reindeer, a domesticated cousin of the caribou.
The reindeer are the central draw at the farm, a working spread that is transformed into a whimsical Christmas tourist attraction every year. Applewood is open from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on weekends through Dec. 21. That means you have only two weekends left to see the reindeer. So hurry! Grab your camera and a stash of candy canes for the ride. Bundle the kids up, and bundle them up good -- it's reindeer weather here.
The $2 admission fee gets you into the Reindeer Village (really just a corral where the reindeer hang out), the Christmas tree fields and a log barn, but it will not buy you circulating heat or indoor plumbing. This is the country, people.
Although we came primarily for the reindeer and to pick up new material for holiday parties, the rest of the farm has plenty to make a day of serious holiday prep: You can cut down the Christmas tree of your choosing, go for a pony ride, get your hands on the potbellied pigs and pygmy goats at the petting zoo or hang out in a 220-year-old log barn filled with vintage model trains, hot chocolate and holly by the pound ($3.50 a pound -- "You Weigh It, We Trust You!!").
Big corporations spend lots of money trying to make Christmas villages look as authentic as this classic red barn trimmed in swinging Christmas lights, holly and greens. The barn's six trains include one that runs on a track overhead. A small shop at the back sells country crafts, and a little refreshment stand called the Crazy Crow Cafe offers coffee (50 cents), hot or cold apple cider (60 cents), hot chocolate and soda (75 cents), hot dogs ($1.50) and honey sticks (25 cents or five for $1).
Once you've warmed up, you can head back outside, where there's a Christmas tree maze for the kids, a reindeer antler toss, snowball bowling and hayrides. Applewood has been selling Christmas trees for more than 20 years, but Adelhardt said the trees weren't growing fast enough to keep up with demand. So he set out to create not just a Christmas tree chop op, but a value-added holiday experience for a few fleeting weeks before the Big Day.
He cautions people looking only for a tree to find another farm, one that doesn't charge the admission he started collecting three years ago to keep the crowds down (about 10,000 people visit the farm annually between the fall pumpkin-picking season and Christmas).
"We want families who want the whole experience and get a nice Christmas tree," he said. The reindeer, he added, "were a good fit with Christmas trees."
Brian and Pat Adelhardt bought their first reindeer, Hollyberry, in 1997 from another Pennsylvania farm. She survived only six months before dying from a tick-borne disease that eventually felled three other reindeer. After the first reindeer died, Brian spent six months at the University of Alaska's Reindeer Research Program in Fairbanks to learn more about raising and breeding the animals. In 1999, four new reindeer from Alaska came to live on the farm. They have produced six offspring, including Minnie, the reindeer we got to tickle.