Twas the night before Christmas. And you might have been wondering about “Donner.”
After all, the other reindeer names make sense. Dasher dashes, Dancer dances, Prancer prances. Cupid and Vixen probably hang out together. Comet is clearly the fastest one. And Blitzen is the German one that sparkles like lightning. But Donner? What the heck is that?
And therein lies the controversy. In 1823, a poem called “A Visit from St. Nicholas” was published in the Troy NY Sentinel, by an anonymous author. Over the years, it was widely reprinted and became famously known as “The Night Before Christmas.” Whereupon a Columbia University literature professor named Clement Clarke Moore came forward to claim authorship. He alleged that a friend of his had sent the poem in surreptitiously to protect Moore’s stature as a serious scholar. Moore further claimed that he had modeled his story from similar ones in his colleague Washington Irving’s History of New York, and the inspiration for his St. Nicholas was a Dutch handyman he knew who went about with a sleigh full of tools in the wintertime. After Moore’s death, his children included the poem in his published works. All of which gave Clement Clarke Moore lasting fame as the poem’s creator.
But then there’s Donner, or rather “Donder.” When Moore provided 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 any more sense for a deer’s name than “Donner,” but “Dunder” certainly does. It’s the Dutch word for “Thunder,” which would be a perfect match for “Blixem,” the Dutch word for “Lightning.” Imagine Dunder and Blixem, pulling Santa’s sleigh like Thunder and Lightning.
If you dig a little deeper, you uncover 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 constructed in anapestic tetrameter, the poetic meter found in “A Night Before Christmas.” Moreover, Livingston’s mother was Dutch, and he drew from a rich Dutch tradition of stories about “Sinteklaes” and his reindeer “Dunder” and “Blixem.” And to top it off, the Santa Claus in Livingston’s poems commonly carried a pipe, whereas Clement Clarke Moore was an avowed opponent of smoking, so it seems unlikely that Moore would have included this feature if he had written the poem himself.
So perhaps Henry Livingston is the real Christmas poet. Or perhaps some of Livingston’s 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 Moore, who was 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.
The world may never know the truth, and Donner ain’t talking. But with the holiday upon us and the thermometer in Troy, NY sitting at 65 degrees, perhaps some of Livingston’s intended drama is actually coming true.
Twas the night before Christmas. And Santa’s sleigh will be coming through like Thunder and Lightning.