The Story of Santa’s Reindeer

Posted on Dec 14, 2010 under ARCHIVES | No Comment

Illustrator: Jessie Willcox Smith

Santa Claus’s reindeer are a team of flying reindeer pulling his sleigh so he can deliver Christmas gifts. The commonly cited names of the reindeer are Dasher and Dancer, Prancer and Vixen, Comet and Cupid, and Donder and Blitzen. They are based on the names used in the 1823 poem.  Donder and Blitzen were originally called Dunder and Blixem.

A Visit from St. Nicholas, also known as The Night Before Christmas, is a poem first published anonymously in 1823. It was generally believed to have been written by Clement Clarke Moore, although the claim has also been made that it was written by Henry Livingston, Jr. This poem is arguably considered the best known verse ever written by an American.

The poem is largely credited for the contemporary Christmas lore, including the eight flying reindeer and their names.

From a misreading of this poem came the myth that the reindeer fly!  The words were actually a metaphor to suggest moving very fast.  The poem also informs us that the narrator Flew to the window “Away to the window I flew like a flash”, without implying actual flight.

Various Lines from the Poem:

“More rapid than eagles his coursers they came”: This would actually mean they moved as fast as Eagles and arrived very quickly. There never was a reference that reindeer fly in the original work.

“As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky;
So up to the house-top the coursers they flew,”

The images of leaves blowing circular and high by the wind giving the impression that reindeer went vertically as they neared the house and moving at such a speed,  they were propelled to the roof.  This simply got past the problem of getting the reindeer on the roof!

On December 23, 1823   Edmund Clarence Stedman reprinted the poem, including the German spelling of Donder and Blitzen, instead of  the original 1823 Dutch spelling, Dunder and Blixem.  The poem was reprinted frequently thereafter with no name attached.  Only later did Moore acknowledge his authorship, and was acknowledged as so in 1844.

Prior to the poem, Americans concept about St. Nicholas and other Christmastide visitors varied considerably. The release of the poem had a huge impact on ideas about St. Nicholas. The poem has also influenced people’s thoughts beyond the United States to the rest of the English-speaking world and beyond.

The popularity of the Christmas song Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer has led to Rudolph joining the list of Reindeer.

Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer has a glowing red nose. He is  known as “Santa’s Ninth Reindeer” and leads the other Reindeer pulling the sleigh on Christmas Eve. The luminosity of his nose is so great that it illuminates the team’s path through the dark winter night.

Rudolph first appeared in a 1939 booklet written by Robert L. May and published by Montgomery Ward.

The story is owned by The Rudolph Company, L.P. and has been adapted in numerous forms including a popular song, television specials, a feature film and books involving Rudolph in many adventures. Although the story and song are not public domain, Rudolph has become a figure of Christmas folklore.

May’s brother-in-law, Johnny Marks, decided to adapt the story of Rudolph into a song. Marks (1909–1985), was a radio producer and wrote several popular Christmas songs. He was born in a New York City suburb and graduated from Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y., before going off to Paris to study music. He had a heroic World War II combat record, winning the Bronze Star and four battle stars.

Johnny Marks was an American songwriter.  Even though he was Jewish, he specialized in Christmas songs.  Among some of his most famous are: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree and A Holly Jolly Christmas

Gene Autry recorded the song  in 1949, and is considered one of the most famous Christmas songs.

Autry’s version of the song also holds the distinction of being the only number one hit to fall completely off the chart after hitting #1 the week of Christmas 1949. Yet, it sold 2.5 million copies the first year and a total of 25 million since. It remained the second best-selling record of all time until the 1980s.

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