Donner, Donder or Dunder?

Solving the mystery of Santa's seventh reindeer

Donner or Donder? Or Dunder?. Peter Dazeley/The Image Bank/Getty Images

It probably doesn't rise to the level of an actual "controversy," as some people would have it, but there is some confusion as to the proper identification 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 the 1949 Christmas song by Johnny Marks, "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer":

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

But it's "Donder" in all but a few 19th- and 20th-century reprints of "A Visit from St. Nicholas," 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!"

And, while the obvious recourse would seem to be to bow to the preference of the original author, Mr. Moore was apparently none too sure of it himself. In the earliest known printing of "A Visit from St. Nicholas" in the Dec. 23, 1823 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 owes much to the traditions of the New York Dutch — traditions Moore probably had some personal acquaintance with, as well as having encountered them in the works of contemporary authors such as Washington Irving (Knickerbocker's History of New York, 1809).

"Dunder and blixem!" — literally, "Thunder and lightning!" — was a popular expletive among the Dutch-American inhabitants of late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-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

We know that the poem appeared in print several times between its introduction in 1823 and the date of Moore's fair copy, 1862, and we know that in each instance the text included minor revisions. We don't know to what extent Moore himself participated in these revisions, if at all, but we do know he incorporated some of them in the version of "A Visit from St. Nicholas" (the version that would become standard) that 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, 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 rendered "Donder and Blixen":

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

Did Moore sign off on this version? We don't really know, though it seems likely 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 repetitions of the word "on" in the couplet, and 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" we 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 even "lightning.")

'On, Donner!'

So, how did we get from the name Clement C. Moore ultimately settled on — "Donder" — to "Donner," the name we're all familiar with from "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer"? Apparently by way of the New York Times! In a Dec. 23, 1906 reprint of the poem, Times copy editors rendered the name of Santa's seventh reindeer "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."

She 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" you get a matched pair of German names, instead of one Dutch and one German. Copy editors are sticklers for consistency.

What I can't tell you for certain 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 on which the song (which was composed by May's brother-in-law, by the way) was based:

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

To return to our original conundrum, is there a correct name for Santa's seventh reindeer? Not really. "Dunder" survives only as an historical footnote, but "Donder" and "Donner" remain enshrined in standard versions of the Clement C. Moore poem and Johnny Marks song on which all of our familiar notions about Santa's reindeer are based. Either they're both correct, or, as some skeptical persons might suggest, neither is correct because Santa Claus and his reindeer are fictional characters that don't really exist.

Let's not go there.

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Last updated 11/29/15