The Reindeer
The Reindeer

Reindeer are a species of deer located in the Arctic regions of the world. The largest Reindeer can reach up to four feet high at the shoulder and weigh as much as 250 pounds. It is believed that there are no longer any wild Reindeer, the entire species seeming to have been domesticated. Each Reindeer can pull up to twice its own weight, making it an ideal animal for pulling a sleigh loaded down with any amount of cargo. Reindeer were first domesticated approximately 2000 years ago and, in the Arctic Circle, the Lapps would herd them in much the same way as other nations herded cattle. Reindeer are well-adapted to living in cold regions and under rugged conditions, able to smell-out food even when it is buried under deep snow. Reindeer have large broad hooves which act like snowshoes to support them over snowy and boggy ground. These hooves emit a "clicking" sound as the animal walks, caused by a tendon in the foot rubbing against a bone. The coat of the Reindeer consists of thick fur and stiff hairs which protect them from the worst of the weather. A thick woolly undercoat keeps out the deep cold by trapping air near the skin. These thick coats are also waterproof and, during migration, Reindeer are able to cover vast distances, crossing both rivers and lakes, in search of favorable feedings grounds. The calves are born in early Summer and have the ability to run almost from the moment they are born...a necessary trait if they are going to keep up with their mothers. The antlers of a male Reindeer are larger than those of the female and are palmate at the top...akin to open hands. An antler span of four feet has been recorded.

The Reindeer driven by Santa Claus are the only known flying Reindeer in existence, believed to have been endowed with the power of flight by virtue of magic corn given to Kris Kringle by a great and wonderful wizard. Through this magic corn, the strength of the Reindeer is increased threefold, their stamina increased to infinity and their hooves can manipulate the air as though it were solid ground. Thus, a complement of nine Reindeer would be able to pull a sleigh brimming with 13,500 pounds of toys for an unlimited amount of time.

Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer

"Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" is perhaps the most modern of all Christmas symbols and certainly the most familiar of Reindeer, even though he was not a member of Santa's original team. Created in 1939 by a 34-year old copywriter named Robert L. May, Rudolph was the product of a request made by May's employer, Montgomery Ward, which wanted a Christmas story it could use as a promotional tool for its chain of department stores. The Chicago-based company had been buying and distributing coloring books for children at Christmas for many years and the idea of creating a giveaway booklet of its own was perceived to be an excellent means of saving money. May, who had a penchant for writing children's stories and limericks, was called upon to create the booklet.

Originally in poetry form, May composed the tale about a misfit reindeer by drawing, in part, upon "The Ugly Duckling" concept and May's own childhood experience of being subjected to frequent taunting due to his small, slight stature and his tendency toward shyness. Thus, May settled upon the idea of an underdog who is ostracized by the rest of the reindeer community because of his physical abnormality...a glowing red nose. In search of an alliterative name for his misfit, May considered and rejected "Rollo" as being too cheerful and carefree. He also rejected "Reginald," feeling it to be too British in nature, before finally deciding upon "Rudolph."

The story was written as a series of rhyming couplets which May tested on his 4-year old daughter Barbara as he went along. Barbara was delighted with the story, but May's employer feared that a tale featuring a red image usually associated with drinking and drunkards...might prove unsuitable for a Christmas story. May responded by taking Denver Gillen, a friend from Montgomery Ward's art department, to the Lincoln Park Zoo in order that Gillen could sketch some deer. Gillen's illustrations of a red-nosed reindeer overcame the hesistancy of May's employer and the Rudolph story was approved. That first year (1939), Montgomery Ward distributed 2.4 million copies of May's booklet, and although the wartime paper shortage curtailed printing for the following several years, a grand total of 6 million copies had been given to children by the end of 1946.

The post-war demand for licensing the Rudolph character was enormous but, since May had created the tale as an employee of Montgomery Ward, the company had possession of the copyright and May received no royalties. Deeply in debt due to the medical bills resulting from his wife's terminal illness (she passed away around the time Rudolph was created), May persuaded his employer's Corporate President, Sewell Avery, to turn over the copyright to him in January of 1947. With the rights to his creation in hand, May's financial security was assured.

Later that year, "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" was printed commercially and, in 1948, was shown in theaters as a 9-minute cartoon. The Rudolph phenomenon really caught on, however, when Johnny Marks, May's brother-in-law and songwriter, penned the lyrics and melody for a Rudolph song. This musical version of Rudolph's tale was recorded by Gene Autry in 1949. It sold two million copies during its first year and went on to become one of the best-selling songs of all time...second only to "White Christmas." In 1964, an American television special about Rudolph, narrated by Burl Ives, was produced and remains a constant holiday favorite to this day.

May quit his job in 1951 and spent the next seven years managing his creation. He then returned Montgomery Ward, where he worked until his retirement in 1971. May died in 1976, comfortable in the life that his misfit reindeer character had provided for him.

Although the story of Rudolph is best-known through the lyrics of Marks' song, May's initial rendition of the tale differs substantially in many ways. The original Rudolph was not one of Santa's reindeers nor was he the offspring of any of Santa's reindeers. Rudolph did not dwell at the North Pole but rather lived elswhere in an "ordinary" reindeer village. Although in May's story Rudolph was taunted and ridiculed for his shiny, red nose, he was not considered by his parents as a shameful embarrassment. Rudolph was raised in a loving reindeer household and was a responsible little fellow with a good self-image and sense of worth.

In addition, the original Rudolph did not rise to fame when Santa singled him out from the rest of the reindeer herd because of his shiny, red nose. Rudolph was discovered quite by accident when Santa noticed the glow emanating from Rudolph's room while the kindly old gift-giver was delivering presents to Rudolph's house. Concerned that the thickening fog...already the cause of several accidents and delays...would keep him from completing his Christmas Eve deliveries, Santa called upon Rudolph to lead the team of reindeer, observing upon their safe return:

"By YOU last night's journey was actually bossed.
Without you, I'm certain we'd all have been lost!"

The Team

The eight named reindeer of Santa Claus first appeared in American literature in 1823, featured in the famous poem penned by Clement Clarke Moore entitled, 'Twas the Night Before Christmas, also known as A Visit from Saint Nicholas. Prior to the appearance of this rhyme, legend had the jolly toy-bringer's sleigh pulled by one singular anonymous reindeer. By virtue of Moore's poem, Santa was gifted with eight reindeer: Dasher; Dancer; Prancer; Vixen; Comet; Cupid; Donder; and Blitzen. Unfortunately, for Donder, however, this particular reindeer is not always given the recognition so well-deserved, frequently being referred to as "Donner."

The Donder v. Donner Controversy

Confusion over the name of one of Santa's reindeer has been present from the inception of Moore's poem. The first published version appeared in the New York "Troy Sentinel" in 1823 and contained a typographical error that listed a reindeer by the name of "Dunder." However, when the poem reappeared in a collection of Moore's poetry in 1844, the name given in the text was "Donder." Furthermore, Moore's own introduction to the collection indicated that "Donder" was indeed the correct spelling he had intended. In addition, in a longhand version of the poem written by Moore the year prior to his death, he again rendered the name of "Donder."

Part of the "Donder/Donner" confusion is that "Blitzen" (the reindeer with whom Donder is generally paired) takes its name from the German word for "lightning," and the German word for "thunder" is "Donner." ("Donder" means "thunder" in Dutch, but it is unknown whether Moore actually made this connection or whether it is merely a conincidence.) However, the true culprit in the perpetuation of this error appears to be the song, "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer" (details of which are given above). When this song was recorded by Gene Autry in 1949, the name of "Donder" had been transformed by Johnny Marks, the lyricist, into "Donner." The reasoning for this is not known. Marks was not reflecting a popular usage, since any reference to "Donner" being the name of one of Santa's reindeer did not appear in print prior to 1950. There has been speculation that the name change simply made the words flow more smoothly.

"Donner" was used again in 1948 with the release of Spike Jones' "All I Want For Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth," but in his 1996 television movie starring Angela Lansbury called "Mrs. Santa Claus," author Mark Saltzman correctly named the eight reindeer in accordance with Moore's intentions. Roland McElroy also used the correct name in his Christmas tale, "The Great Mizzariddle," as did Charles and Debra Ghigna in their book of Christmas poems entitled, "Christmas is Coming!"

With time, awareness and a little luck, perhaps Donder can once again be restored to the former glory of being known universally as a member of Santa's original Reindeer Team and the imposter known as "Donner" be laid to rest forever.

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