C’mon, admit it, you’ve always wondered about Donner.
All the other reindeer names make sense. Dasher dashes, Dancer dances, Prancer prances. Cupid and Vixen probably hang out together in the off-season. Comet is clearly the fastest one. And Blitzen is the German one that sparkles like lightning.
But Donner? Something’s up with that one. And therein lies the controversy. When “A Visit from St. Nicholas” was first published in the Troy NY Sentinel in 1823, the author was anonymous. As it was reprinted and became famously known as “The Night Before Christmas,” a Columbia University literature professor named Clement Clarke Moore came forward to claim authorship. (A friend of Moore’s had apparently sent the poem in surreptitiously to protect Moore’s stature as a serious scholar.) Moore modeled his story from similar ones in his colleague Washington Irving’s History of New York, and he had gotten the inspiration for his St. Nicholas from a Dutch handyman he knew who went about with a sleigh full of tools in the wintertime. Or so said Moore’s children, who after Moore’s death included the poem in an anthology of his works, giving Clement Clarke Moore lasting fame as the poem’s creator.
But then there’s Donner, or rather “Donder.” When Moore gave an early handwritten copy of the poem to the New York Historical Society, he spelled the name Donder (it was only later that it became Donner, which is easier to read out loud.) Well, “Donder” doesn’t make sense either, but “Dunder” does. It’s the Dutch word for “Thunder,” which is the perfect match for “Blixem,” the Dutch word for “Lightning.” Imagine Dunder and Blixem, pulling Santa’s sleigh like Thunder and Lightning. That’s awesome!
If you dig a little deeper, you come to a poet named Henry Livingston Jr., who was slightly older than Moore and who wrote many poems consistent with “A Night Before Christmas.” Unlike Moore, whose body of work is almost entirely serious scholarship, Livingston wrote many lighthearted poems, and most were in the same anapaestical metrical scheme as “A Night.” Moreover, Livingston’s mother was Dutch, and he drew from a rich Dutch tradition of stories about “Sinteklaes” and his reindeer “Dunder” and “Blixem.” Finally, Moore was an avowed opponent of smoking, so it makes no sense that he would make his Santa a smoker.
Perhaps Livingston was the real author, some of his stories were picked up by the historian Washington Irving, and one of them was co-opted – or even merely translated from the original Dutch – by Clement Moore, a serious language scholar. Only later, when the poem exploded in popularity and the author(s) were dead, did Moore get the credit for writing one of the best-known works in the English language. A Christmas gift indeed.
The world may never know the truth, and Donner ain’t talking. But the next time you read the poem to little kids, give Livingston his due and throw in some of the intended drama of Dunder and Blixem. Santa’s sleigh, coming through the night like Thunder and Lightning. That’s awesome.