Who’s Donder and Blixem?

Originally published in The Smithfield Magazine – December, 2023

Who’s Donder and Blixem?

By Jim Ignasher

    Now, Dasher! Now, Dancer! Now, Prancer! Now, Vixen! On Comet, on Cupid, on Donner, on Blitzen! “

     Virtually everyone’s familiar with the names of Santa’s reindeer, but how many are aware that his reindeer officially turn 200 this year? All except Rudolph, but more about him later.

     Today we take it for granted that Santa travels the world in his open sleigh powered by eight reindeer. We don’t even question the fact that reindeer aren’t equipped for flight. Anyway, prior to the 1820s, Santa generally walked, or rode a donkey or white horse. It wasn’t until 1821 that ole St. Nick finally got around to using a sled pulled (then) by a single reindeer. A depiction of this appeared in a children’s poem titled, “Old Santeclaus With Much Delight”, published that year in New York.

     The following year poet Clement C. Moore, (1779 – 1863), penned his classic poem “A Visit From Saint Nicholas”, for his children. (Sometimes referred to in modern times as “The Night Before Christmas”.) The poem was first published in a New York newspaper in 1823 and has been a yuletide favorite ever since.

     Moore was the first to infer that Santa’s sled was pulled by eight reindeer, and he gave them their names that we know today. However, as a point of fact, the original names of “Donner” and “Blitzen” were actually “Donder” and “Blixem”, which are Dutch words for thunder and lightning. Exactly when and how the names morphed is unclear. Perhaps it was an editor who took artistic license, or simply a typographic error. Some claim it was Moore himself who made the changes. In any case, The Green Mountain Freeman, a defunct Vermont newspaper, published the poem on December 20, 1860, and Blixem had become Blixen. Six years later, a Staunton, Virginia, newspaper spelled the names “Dunder, (With a U not an O.), and Blitzen. Eventually, “Donder” or “Dunder” became Donner.

     Moore’s poem was so popular that it inspired spin-offs such as Edgar Fawcett’s 1880 poem of the same name, which told of Kris Kringle trudging through a snowstorm with his back “bent from the weight of his pack”, and his long beard blowing like “ocean spray” in the wind. Then there was Annie’s and Willie’s Prayer, (1884), by Sophia P. Snow; a poem about two children who pray to Jesus after being told that Santa Claus doesn’t exist. Another was “Twas The Day After Christmas” C. 1897, by Frank C. Stanton, which told of a man with a severe hangover who couldn’t seem to obtain enough ice. And there have been others who’ve been inspired by Moore’s format down to the present day.

     While Clement C. Moore is generally credited by most historians with writing “A Visit From Saint Nicholas”, there are some who disagree. This is mainly because when Moore’s poem was originally published in December of 1823, his name was not credited because his friend had anonymously mailed the work to a newspaper in Troy, New York, without Moore’s knowledge. Despite not knowing who’d authored or sent the poem, the paper published it, and it was subsequently re-printed in other newspapers the following year.

     Getting back to Santa’s reindeer, there’s the ninth reindeer we know as Rudolph, who is, relatively speaking, the new kid on the block. Rudolph was the brainchild of Robert L. May who came up with the red-nosed reindeer as part of an advertising campaign for the now defunct department store chain known as Montgomery Ward. In December of 1939 free Rudolph coloring books were distributed to boys and girls who visited the stores to see Santa. The books were a success, and were later followed by the popular song “Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer” written Johnny Marks, and recorded by Gene Autry in June of 1949. Rocker Chuck Berry later wrote and recorded “Run Rudolph Run” in 1958, and in 1964 the animated story of Rudolph was aired on television for the first time thus making Rudolph, “The most famous reindeer of all”.

     Finally, by a show of hands, how many know that there was a children’s book published in 1902 that mentioned Santa’s reindeer, but instead of eight, there were ten, and they had different names than the ones we’ve come to know today? The book is titled, “The Life And Adventures Of Santa Clause”, by L. Frank Baum. The story is nothing like Moore’s poem, but Baum gave the reindeer the following names; Glossie and Flossie; Racer and Pacer: Reckless and Speckless; Fearless and Peerless; and Ready and Steady. The book has since been adapted for television.

     So this Christmas Eve, as children everywhere lie nestled all snug in their beds, they can listen for reindeer – be it eight, nine or ten.

     “A happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!”





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