We know Dasher and Dancer and Prancer and Vixen. We also know Comet and Cupid and Donner and Blitzen. And most of us can recall Rudolph, too. But do we know why these reindeer are so well known or how they came to be?
Before we can get to know his reindeer, we first need to appreciate the history of Santa Claus. According to Deborah Whipp from www.altogetherchristmas.com, “the origin of Santa Claus, one of the most beloved figures of childhood, begins in the fourth century with Saint Nicholas.” St. Nicholas was recognized for his noble deeds and commitment to the welfare of children as the bishop of Myra in modern-day Turkey. He used his own wealth to secretly give gifts to the needy. Six-hundred years after St. Nicholas’ death, his remains were moved to Italy, and his “reputation for kindness and philanthropy, as well as claims of miracles he had performed, served to increase devotion to him and his popularity spread throughout Europe,” Whipp said.
The feast of St. Nicholas was December 6, and it was celebrated by sharing gifts and doing acts of charity. Though his popularity waned in some European countries over the centuries, Santa (or Sinterklaas) remained a holiday staple in Holland. In the 17th century, Dutch immigrants brought Sinterklaas, and his tradition of traveling the country on horseback and rewarding good little girls and boys with treats, to America, specifically New Amsterdam. As the area became increasingly Anglicized, New Amsterdam became New York and Sinterklaas became Santa Claus.
The first appearance of Santa's sleigh being pulled by a reindeer, as well as the first mention of the reindeer, was in an anonymous poem published in New York in 1821 called "Old Santeclaus With Much Delight." Written in a 16-page booklet titled "A New Year's Present, to the Little Ones from Five to Twelve Number III: The Children's Friend," the beginning stanza reads:
"Old Santeclaus with much delight/
His reindeer drives this frosty night/
O'r chimney tops, and tracts of snow/
To bring his yearly gifts to you"
A few years later, this idea of magical reindeer propelling Santa Claus through the sky was magnified eightfold. In 1823, "A Visit From St. Nicholas" was published — again, in New York. The poem, more commonly known as "'Twas the Night Before Christmas," is of uncertain authorship, though Clement Clarke Moore and Henry Livingston Jr. are the top two contenders. The poem describes "a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny reindeer," as well as St. Nick's "little round belly that shook when he laughed like a bowl full of jelly." This was the origin of the jolly Santa, eyes twinkling and nose red, that we know and love today.
Another red-nosed character had his first appearance about a century later. Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer made his debut in 1939 in a children's book of the same name by Robert Lewis May. Within a year, 2.4 million copies of the story had been distributed. Rudolph's fame only rose with the 1949 song by Gene Autry and the stop-motion animation from 1964.
And aside from the introduction of Rudolph, not much else has changed in our cultural understanding of Santa and his reindeer — except some linguistics. According to Chris Baker at www.syracuse.com, "the names of most of the reindeer have remained unchanged from the original 1823 poem, with the exception of those last two: Dunder and Blixem." Dunder and blixem are the Dutch words for thunder and lightning. Modern-day recitations commonly call them Donner and Blitzen after various translations — from Dutch to German to English and back again — changed the spelling.
Now that we've explored the history of these magical reindeer, be sure to leave some carrots out on Christmas Eve, and to borrow a phrase from "A Visit From St. Nicholas," Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!