Santa's Whiskers

Myron King engraving for Troy Sentinel:

The Reindeer

The first known written reference of a reindeer in association with the legend of Santa Claus occurred in 1821. That year, New York printer William Gilley published a sixteen-page booklet titled “A New Year’s Present, to the Little Ones from Five to Twelve”, 
by an anonymous author. In the book, a reindeer is introduced
into the Santa Claus narrative: 

Old Santeclaus with much delight
His reindeer drives this frosty night.
O'er chimneytops, and tracks of snow,
To bring his yearly gifts to you.

The singular and plural of the word reindeer are the same, and so
the images that accompany the booklet are important, for in the
​image that shows Santa in his sleigh there is only one reindeer.

During an 1822 interview, New York’s Troy Sentinel editor Orville
L. Holley questioned Mr. Gilley regarding the booklet’s author and
the topic of reindeer. Though he did not identify the author, Mr.
Gilley responded:

“Dear Sir, the idea of Santeclaus was not mine nor was the idea of
a reindeer. The author of the tale but submitted the piece, with
little added information. However, it should be noted that he did
mention the reindeer in a subsequent correspondence. He stated
that far in the north near the Arctic lands a series of animals exist,
these hooven and antlered animals resemble the reindeer and are
​feared and honored by those around, as you see he claims to have
heard they could fly from his mother. His mother being an Indian
​of the area.”

It should be noted that the author of “The Children’s Friend” was Arthur J. Stansbury (a Presbyterian Minister). Isaac Doolittle and William Armand Barnet were the lithographers, and William Gilley was the publisher.

One year later, the 1823 poem by Clement C. Moore, “A Visit From St. Nicholas” (also known as “The Night Before Christmas”), is largely credited for the contemporary Christmas lore that includes the eight flying reindeer and their names. Not only did Moore specify the number of reindeer:

“When what to my wondering eyes did appear,
But a miniature sleigh and eight tiny rein-deer,”

He also identified them by name:

“And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name:
Now, Dasher! Now Dancer! Now Prancer and Vixen!
On, Comet! On Cupid! On Donder and Blitzen!

Wait, what were those last two names? Donder and Blitzen? Should it be Dunder and Blixem? Or Donder and Blixen? Or Donner and Blitzen?

Moore’s original 1822 manuscript for the poem does not exist and Moore only shared the poem in a private reading for his family. The daughter of a family friend, Miss Harriet Butler, heard his recitation and she copied it into her album and later submitted it to the Troy Sentinel. This is the first opportunity for error in the transcription of the words of the poem.

The Troy Sentinel’s printing of the poem in 1823 names the last two reindeer as Dunder and Blixem. But the typesetter would have had to read Butler’s notes and set the type, and the editor had an
opportunity to make changes before approving the poem.
This is the second opportunity for error in the transcription
of the words of the poem.

In the years that followed, the Troy Sentinel continued to
publish the poem annually, and other publications freely
copied the Sentinel’s material. But every time the Sentinel,
or any other publication, published the poem a typesetter
had to set the type and an editor had to approve the copy.
This becomes the third set of opportunities for error in the
transcription of the words of the poem.

For example, in 1830 the Troy Sentinel actually produced
two broadsheets containing the poem, one has Dunder
and Blixem, the other has Donder and Blitzen.

In 1837 The New York Book of Poetry attributed the poem
to the authorship of Clement C. Moore. Now the last two
reindeer are Donder and Blixen. http://www.

The only consistent spelling of the names of the last two reindeer seems to be by Moore himself. In the 1844 book of “Poems” by Clement C. Moore, he included “The Night Before Christmas”, finally acknowledged his authorship, and named the last two reindeer as Donder and Blitzen.

In 1853, Moore, at age 74, penned a copy of his poem in his own hand which became the property of The Strong Museum in Rochester, New York. The last two reindeer are Donder and Blitzen.

In 1864 an L. Prang booklet version of the poem named the reindeer as Dunder and Blitzen, In 1915 a little booklet version of the poem illustrated by Alice Hirschberg had the names as Dunder and Blixen ("The Night Before Christmas," illustrated by Alice Hirschberg, Buffalo, N.Y., The Hayes Lithographing Company). Another little booklet, “All About Santa Claus” with pictures by Gladys Hall, named the last two reindeer as Dunder and Blixen. ("All About Santa Claus", illustrated by Gladys Hall, London: Dean & Son, Ltd. 1924, p. 25)

How important is this issue? Probably not much. The names chosen by Moore, Donder and Blitzen, which presumably appeared in the original manuscript, in German mean “Thunder” and “Lightning.” Dunder and Blixem, as they appeared in the first Troy Sentinel publication, are the Dutch versions and mean “Thunder” and “Lightning.”

Even as late as 1939, when May wrote the story of Rudolph for the Montgomery Ward Company, he changed the name of Donder to Donner, and Marks retained that spelling when, in 1949, he adapted the story into the song about Rudolph. And let’s face it, there were other changes in the poem over the years as well. For example, the poem was first printed in abridged form in 1830. In 1832 Moore’s phrase “Merry Christmas” is replaced with the phrase “Happy Christmas.” In 1851 the phrase “The Night Before Christmas” is used as the subtitle, and in 1863 the title of the poem is changed to “The Night Before Christmas.”

The ninth and lead reindeer, Rudolph, was added in 1939, when Robert L. May, a frustrated catalogue writer who aspired to something more, was asked by his employer Montgomery Ward to write a booklet story about a little reindeer that the company could
sell as its own instead of selling Christmas coloring books by
others. May chose the name Rudolph and wrote the story about a
young reindeer harassed and excluded by the other reindeer
because of his glowing red nose. Until that fateful night, a
Christmas Eve, when the weather was going to prevent Santa from
making his annual trip. As everyone now knows, Rudolph saved
the day by leading the team and lighting the way with his nose.
Montgomery Ward published the story and it became immediately

Ten years later Johnny Marks, May’s brother-in-law, adapted the
story into a song of the same name. Gene Autry’s recording of the
song hit the number 1 spot of the Billboard pop singles chart the
week of Christmas 1949.