The Mystery of Santa's 7th Reindeer

Donner, Donder, or Dunder?

Reindeer in the woods close up.

Steve/Pexels

Anyone who has encountered a few different versions of the Saint Nicholas story has probably wondered about the name of Santa's seventh reindeer. Is his (or her) name Donner, Donder, or Dunder?

It will likely be remembered as "Donner" by anyone who grew up listening to Johnny Marks' 1949 Christmas song "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer."

You know Dasher and Dancer and Prancer and Vixen,
Comet and Cupid and Donner and Blitzen...

But the name is "Donder" in all but a few of the 19th- and 20th-century reprints of "A Visit from St. Nicholas." This is the classic Christmas poem by Clement Clarke Moore, in which Santa's "eight tiny reindeer" were originally named.

"Now, Dasher! now, Dancer! now, Prancer and Vixen!
On, Comet! on, Cupid! on, Donder and Blitzen!"

While the obvious recourse would be to bow to the preference of the original author, Moore was apparently none too sure of the reindeer's name himself. In the earliest known printing of "A Visit from St. Nicholas" in the December 23, 1823 issue of "Troy Sentinel" (a small-town newspaper in upstate New York), the given names of Santa's seventh and eighth reindeer were, in fact, "Dunder and Blixem."

"Now! Dasher, now! Dancer, now! Prancer, and Vixen,
On! Comet, on! Cupid, on! Dunder and Blixem;"

The Dutch-American Influence

They don't rhyme as prettily as "Donder and Blitzen," but the names "Dunder and Blixem" do make sense in the context of the poem's cultural influences. Moore's depiction of Christmas and Santa Claus is greatly indebted to the traditions of the New York Dutch. These were traditions Moore probably had some personal acquaintance with, having likely encountered them in the works of contemporary authors such as Washington Irving. "Dunder and Blixem!" — literally, "thunder and lightning!" — was a popular expletive among the Dutch-American inhabitants of late 18th- and 19th-century New York.

Which leaves us wondering why, when Moore donated a signed, handwritten copy of the poem to the New York Historical Society some 40 years later, the names he wrote down were "Donder and Blitzen."

"Now, Dasher! now, Dancer! now, Prancer and Vixen!
On, Comet! on, Cupid! on, Donder and Blitzen!"

A Work in Progress

Moore's poem appeared in print several times between its first publication in 1823 and the date of Moore's fair copy in 1862. In each instance, the text included minor revisions. Scholars don't know to what extent Moore himself participated in these revisions, if at all, though they do know that he incorporated some of them into the version of "A Visit from St. Nicholas" that would become standard. This version appeared in his own volume of collected poetry, "Poems," in 1844.

The most notable of the intermediary texts, the first to actually cite Clement C. Moore as the author, appeared in "The New-York Book of Poetry." The book was edited by Moore's friend Charles Fenno Hoffman in 1837. Here, in an apparent attempt to fix the rhyme scheme, the names "Dunder and Blixem" are changed to "Donder and Blixen."

"Now, Dasher! now, Dancer! now, Prancer! now, Vixen!
On! Comet, on! Cupid, on! Donder and Blixen—"

Did Moore approve of this revision? Scholars don't really know, though it seems likely that he did. In any case, he clearly favored the change from "Dunder" to "Donder," given that he incorporated it in his 1844 book of poems and subsequent fair copies. The revision is felicitous in two respects. First, "Donder" rhymes internally with the repeated "on" in the couplet. Second, "Donder," being the proper Dutch spelling of the colloquialism "Dunder," retains its original intended meaning "thunder." As to why Moore chose "Blitzen" over "Blixen," scholars can only speculate, but it likely had something to do with the latter being a nonsense word. "Blixen" forms a better rhyme with "Vixen," to be sure, but it's linguistically meaningless. "Blitzen," on the other hand, is a solid German word meaning "flash," "sparkle," and "lightning."

Donner and Donder Reindeer Games

So, how did the name that Clement C. Moore ultimately settled on, "Donder," become "Donner," the name so many people are familiar with from "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer?" The answer, apparently, is because of "The New York Times." In a December 23, 1906 reprint of the poem, "Times" copy editors changed the name of Santa's seventh reindeer to "Donner." Twenty years later, an article by "Times" reporter Eunice Fuller Barnard endeavored — albeit somewhat inaccurately — to explain why:

Indeed, two of the reindeer were originally given Dutch names, "Donder and Blixen" (Bliksem), meaning thunder and lightning. It is only modern publishers who have rechristened them with the German "Donner and Blitzen."

Barnard was surely right about the linguistic logic behind the switch to "Donner," which is, in fact, the German word for "thunder." With "Donner and Blitzen," the poem has a matched pair of German names, instead of one Dutch and one German. Copy editors are sticklers for consistency.

What's still uncertain is whether Robert L. May, the Montgomery Ward ad man who created "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," borrowed the revision from the "New York Times" or came up with it independently. Whatever the case, it appears in his original 1939 poem upon which the Johnny Marks song was based.

Come Dasher! Come Dancer! Come Prancer and Vixen!
Come Comet! Come Cupid! Come Donner and Blitzen!

So, is there a correct name for Santa's seventh reindeer? Not really. "Dunder" survives only as a historical footnote, while "Donder" and "Donner" remain enshrined in standard versions of the Clement C. Moore poem and the Johnny Marks song. In a sense, given that Santa and his reindeer are fictional characters, they're both correct.

Sources:

It Happened Here: The Invention of Santa Claus. Exhibit. New York Historical Society Museum & Library, January 2012, New York.

Rittner, Don. "Twas the Night Before Christmas Began in Troy." The Albany Times Union, December 11, 2010.