Geek Trivia: And called them by name(s)

What names did copywriter Robert L. May consider for a famous red-nosed reindeer before settling on the now-beloved Rudolph?

Editor's note: True to his lazy holiday self, the Trivia Geek has skipped out early to celebrate the silly season and has called forth this time-honored Classic Geek from our archives to cover his tracks. (Again.) He's also taking off December 31, so don't expect a Geek Trivia on that day either. Look for your next fresh edition of Geek Trivia on Jan. 7, 2009.

Few and far between are the denizens of the industrialized world who can escape the secular trappings of the Christmas season, perhaps best exemplified by Santa Claus and his loyal team of nine enchanted (or, at least, telekinetic) reindeer: Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner, Blitzen, and Rudolph -- the latter also sporting the superpower of a hyper-illuminated red nose.

Eight of Santa's flight-capable caribou can trace their origins to a poem: "A Visit from Saint Nicholas." Better known by its revised title, "The Night Before Christmas," the earliest version of this poem first appeared on Dec. 23, 1823 in New York's Troy Sentinel newspaper.

Contemporary readers of the original poem will recognize six of the eight names: Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, and Cupid. The final two members of Santa's flying sleigh team began their lyrical lives named not Donner and Blitzen, but Dunder and Blixem, the Dutch words for thunder and lightning, respectively.

As an aside, even though "A Visit from Saint Nicholas" was originally anonymous, two strong cases for the potential author have subsequently cropped up: Henry Livingston and Clement Clarke Moore. Furthermore, the use of Dutch terminology figures significantly into the respective arguments.

Given New York's rich Dutch immigration history (New Amsterdam, anyone?), the use of Dutch words in the original poem isn't too surprising. However, because "A Visit from Saint Nicholas" originally ran as an anonymous submission to the Sentinel, editors widely reprinted it -- and thus modified it -- in various publications almost since the moment it first appeared.

Chief among these modifications was the evolution of Dunder and Blixem to Donder and Blitzen, the German word for lightning. Further down the line, Donder became Donner, the German word for thunder, and thus we have the current nominal lineup of Santa's reindeer.

Except, of course, for Rudolph, who didn't appear until copywriter Robert L. May dreamt him up in 1939 -- and Santa's red-nosed team leader almost received a different name.


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