While listening to a radio program which mentioned Santa’s reindeer in the song “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”, something occurred to my mom about Donner and Blitzen. In her native German language, donner means thunder, and blitzen means lightning. We were both curious to know if the creator of the song chose these names because of these meanings.
Well! What fun we had on the phone, her asking questions and me surfing the Internet to find the answers. The first link I landed on said that the song came from the book.
Book? Rudolph was a book before it was a song? Now I’m really interested! Who wrote the book, and when?
In 1939, Robert L. May, an ad man for Montgomery Ward retail store, was asked by his boss to write a little story that could be made into one of the booklets that the department store gave away to their customers at Christmas time. He created Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer in a rhyming story poem.
May’s brother-in-law, songwriter Johnny Marks, wrote the lyrics and melody for a song based on the character in the book. He 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”) written by Major Henry Livingston, Jr. or Clement Moore.
And now we come to the answer to our original question. According to ThoughtCo.com,
The 1823 poem “A Visit from Saint Nicholas” refers to “Dunder” and “Blixem”…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” Johnny Marks turned “Donder” into “Donner.” Whether he 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.”
So, Mom, now we know! Here are some other fun links to check out:
The touching story from the December 22, 1975 Gettysburg Times newspaper, “Robert May Tells How Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Came Into Being” (Part 2)
An NPR webpage with audio of their interview with Robert L. May’s granddaughter in which she reads the poem. The webpage includes images of the original color sketches for the book drawn by Robert May’s friend in the art department, Denver Gillen.