How Santa's Reindeer Got Their Names

Illustration of Santa and his reindeer

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If you ask the average American to name Santa's reindeer, the first name to pop up will probably be Rudolph (the Red-Nosed Reindeer). The next two would no doubt be Donner and Blitzen.

But is this correct? And where did these names come from?

Origin of Reindeer Names

The popular Christmas song “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” was a 1949 hit tune sung and recorded by Gene Autry and based on a character originally created by a marketing team for Montgomery Ward in 1939.

The lyrics were written by Johnny Marks, who borrowed most of the reindeer names from the classic 1823 poem “A Visit from Saint Nicholas” (more commonly known as “Twas the Night before Christmas”) by Major Henry Livingston, Jr. (Historically, Clement Clarke Moore has been credited for the poem, but most scholars now believe Livingston to have been the poet.)

The original poem refers to “eight tiny reindeer” (Rudolph actually makes it nine tiny reindeer) and names them: “Now Dasher! now, Dancer! now Prancer and Vixen!/On, Comet! on, Cupid! on Dunder and Blixem!”

Later Versions

"Dunder" and "Blixem"? You've always heard "Donner" and "Blitzen," right? The former were Dutch names written into the poem by Livingston. Only in later versions, modified by Moore in 1844, were the two names changed to German: Donder (close to Donner, thunder) and Blitzen (lightning), to better rhyme with "Vixen."

Finally, for some reason, in the song “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” Marks turned "Donder" into "Donner." Whether Marks made the change because he knew German or because it just sounded better is uncertain.* In any event, there is certainly some logic in using German Donner and Blitzen (thunder and lightning) for the names. Since 1950 or so, the two reindeer names have been Donner and Blitzen in both “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and the “A Visit from Saint Nicholas."