How did Santa’s reindeer get their names?
Children everywhere can recite their names: Dasher and Dancer and Prancer and Vixen, Comet and Cupid and Donder and Blitzen. They can also name Rudolph on sight – a reindeer distinctive for his bright red nose. But where did those names come from, and what do they mean?
The names first appear on the record in New York City. In 1823, a historian of language named Clement Clarke Moore stumbled upon Santa in the act of visiting Moore’s home, an old pile that Moore’s grandfather had built and named Chelsea. (The neighborhood of Chelsea is in the same area today.) Historian that he was, he recorded his experience and had it published in the newspaper under the title ‘A Visit from St. Nicholas’. The record – which took the form of a poem – quickly became a Christmas classic.
There, for the first time, a witness recorded the names of Santa’s reindeer, which Santa, showboating as usual, called aloud as he made a grand exit:
More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
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!’
Santa may well have chosen these names to please the children of New York in particular. After all, they had bestowed on him one of his modern names: by the late 18th century, children in the former New Amsterdam, in which the Dutch language still ran strong, were referring to him by the phrase Sante Klaas – from Sinter Niklaas, Dutch for St. Nicholas. (The phrase is the basis of Santa Claus today.) Two of Santa’s reindeer, Donder and Blitzen, likewise take their names from Dutch – from donder en bliksem, or ‘thunder and lightning’. This phrase was a mild form of swearing in 19th-century New York – an equivalent to saying ‘gosh darn’ or ‘good gravy’.
The other reindeer names may hold some secret meanings for Santa, but we can speculate as to how his love of a grand flourish might have affected his choices. Assuming that he purposely crafted a memorable phrase to shout whenever he rode off (and, again, how extra is Santa Claus?), he must have looked for names that rhymed and that fit his chosen meter (iambic). He might have started with, or just vastly preferred, Donder and Blitzen – that would explain the least intuitive of the reindeer names, Vixen (“female fox”), chosen for the rhyme. Comet and Cupid fit the meter, have the additional advantage of alliteration, and both describe things that fly, as the reindeer do.
Dasher and Dancer, too, are metered and alliterative names. They follow a long tradition of naming animals after attributes (for instance, Hunter and Rover for dogs), although some people have suggested that Santa’s inspiration here was Thor, the Norse god of thunder. In the myths, Thor rode the skies in a wagon pulled by two flying goats named Gnasher and Cracker.
Incidentally – as long as we’re on the subject of words entering the English language from Dutch – the American word for the food that children leave as a gift for Santa, cookies, comes into English from the Dutch koekjes, ‘little cakes’: another gift from Dutch settlers in New York City. Similarly, the name of Santa’s vehicle, sleigh, entered English from Dutch in the 1700s. Google Ngrams, a tool that shows visualizations of word frequency over time in the Google Books corpus, shows that sleigh began seriously overtaking sled only in the early 1820s.
The same tool shows that the names of Santa’s reindeer – or the names that weren’t already commonplace words, like comet – became vastly more popular in English-language texts after the publication of Moore’s poem.
However, Moore’s poem does not mention the most famous reindeer of all. Rudolph is the youngest reindeer, as everyone knows; he doesn’t appear in the historical record until the 20th century. The name first appeared in a storybook that a department store in Chicago gave away for free, in 1939, as a holiday promotion. (A decade later, Rudolph’s story was adapted into the song ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’, which was an instant number one hit, and which you know by heart.) Rudolph’s name, too, is purposefully alliterative; reports say that he was almost named Reginald, but that ultimately the name sounded ‘too British’.
A last note: Moore’s testimony of Santa’s visit is even more credible because it corresponds with an earlier witness account of St. Nicholas in the New York area. At the end of the 1823 poem, he says that St. Nicholas
…turned with a jerk,
And laying his finger aside of his nose,
And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose;
The gesture of laying the finger alongside the nose – it used to signal an instruction to keep something secret, like laying a finger over the lips today – exactly corresponds with a description in Washington Irving’s 1809 book Knickerbocker’s History of New York. There, St. Nicholas appears before a local sage, dispenses some gnomic advice, and then, ‘laying his finger beside his nose, gave [the sage] a very significant look, then mounting his wagon, he returned over the tree-tops and disappeared’. Irving calls this gesture ‘the significant sign of St. Nicholas’. I don’t know how or why the gesture went out of style, but I respect that even Santa’s call to secrecy is such a hammy and choreographed gesture that it might be used to identify him down through the years.
Santa is one of history’s great divas, a performer who makes every move to enthrall and impress. His reindeer, prancing, dancing, illuminating the night, are fitting companions for the jolly old soul of Christmas cheer.