During a Christmas party a few years ago, a group of revelers broke out in song: “You know Dasher, and Dancer, and Prancer, and Vixen, Comet, and Cupid, and Donner, and Blitzen. But do you recall, the most famous reindeer of all …?”
The answer, of course, is Rudolph, the red-nosed reindeer. But I focused on Donner. “It’s Donder, not Donner,” I thought.
So I Googled “Donder” and entered a world of literary confusion.
In A Visit from St. Nicholas, first published anonymously December 23, 1823, 195 years ago, in New York’s Troy Sentinel, Santa called to the eight reindeer — “Now, Dasher! Now, Dancer! Now Prancer and Vixen! On Comet! On Cupid! On, Dunder, and Blixem!”
“Dunder” and “Blixem” are Dutch for “thunder” and “lightning,” so their use is appropriate.
The question is how these names morphed to “Donner” and “Blitzen.”
For 13 years after its original publication, A Visit from St. Nicholas was reprinted many times in newspapers and magazines, and its author was rumored to be Clement C. Moore, a Bible professor at New York’s General Theological Seminary.
Finally, in an 1836 reprint, Moore was credited as the author, and in 1844 he included the famous Christmas poem in a collection of his own works.
All the while, there were whispers that the true author of the poem was Henry Livingston, a New Yorker of Dutch descent.
That “Dunder and Blixem” was a common Dutch exclamation at the time lends some credence to Livingston as author.
In 1837, a version of A Visit from St. Nicholas appeared in which “Blixem” was changed to “Blixen” (to rhyme with Vixen), and Dunder became Donder.
In Moore’s 1844 book of poems, he adopted these changes, and it was that version that became the Christmas classic.
The evolution of “Donder” to “Donner” can be traced to the 1939 publication of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, in which author Robert L. May made the switch.
Ten years later, Gene Autry recorded the Johnny Marks song by the same name, and Autry, too, used the name “Donner.”
The rest is history. So much for legendary reindeer.
Are reindeer real? This is the question on everyone’s mind in December.
The short answer is yes. In North America we call them caribou. Europeans call them reindeer. All populations, however, belong to a single species — Rangifer tarandus.
They are large members of the deer family — much bigger than white-tailed deer.
Male reindeer weigh 275 to 600 pounds; females 200 to 300 pounds.
Caribou distribution in North America is limited almost exclusively to Canada and Alaska. European reindeer roam northern Scandinavia and Russia.
Much of the European herd, though, is domesticated as an important source of meat, milk and leather.
Unlike other members of the deer family, both sexes of caribou grow antlers. Racks tend to be much larger than those of white-tailed deer.
Bucks shed their antlers shortly after breeding. Females retain theirs until spring calving. This gives pregnant females weapons to protect themselves from wolves and grizzly bears.
(It also means Rudolph and the gang were girls because only females have antlers in late December.)
Females also use their antlers as shovels to scrape away snow to find winter food.
Both sexes often eat their own shed antlers because tundra soils contain so little calcium.
Caribou live in the arctic tundra and the surrounding coniferous forest.
Woodland caribou wander throughout the year in search of food, but they cover relatively small distances.
Barren-ground caribou, on the other hand, are noted for long-distance migrations across the frozen tundra.
Because caribou herds deplete the limited supplies of lichens, grasses, sedges, and willow and birch browse, they move almost constantly in search of food.
Some herds travel as far as 3,000 miles each year.
For protection against the cold, caribou wear a coat of thick fur. Their fine, dense under fur is covered by a layer of coarse, hollow guard hairs.
These outer hollow hairs insulate the body and improve the caribou’s buoyancy.
Consequently, caribou are excellent swimmers; they must be to negotiate the many rivers that cross their migratory routes.
I doubt, however, that they are buoyant enough to fly.
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