A Timeline of Santa and his Reindeer

How Do We Know what Santa Looks Like?

The Santa Claus we know now was first sketched by cartoonist Thomas Nast. While Nast was working for Harper’s Weekly, he first drew Santa in 1863. Having never seen Santa himself, he used the description given in the poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (better known as “Twas the Night Before Christmas) that was published in 1823.

Thomas Nast and his vision of Santa

Coca-Cola Comes Along

In 1931, Santa was made more jolly by illustrator Haddon Sundblom. Sundblom’s inspiration for his version of Santa came in the form of his good friend Lou Prentice. Coca-Cola loved the imagery so much that they began using his illustrations in 1931. Sundblom’s Santa was a portly white-bearded gentleman dressed in a red suit with a black belt and white fur trim, black boots, and a soft red cap.

Sundblom (left) Prentice (right)

Why Reindeer?

In Dutch folklore, Sinterklaas travels the world atop a noble, white steed. Although the idea of Sinterklass is where we get Santa Claus from, someone at some-point decided that instead of a horse, Santa should be led by eight reindeer.

Sinterklaas is Coming to Town

In 1821, two years before “A Visit From St. Nicholas” was published, came the first known written account of reindeer in association with Santa Claus. That year, a sixteen page booklet titled “A New Year’s Present, to the Little Ones from Five to Twelve Number III: The Children’s Friend” was published by an anonymous author. A section of the booklet reads; “Old Santeclaus with much delight, His reindeer drives this frosty night. O’er chimneytops, and tracks of snow, To bring his yearly gifts to you.”

Pages from the 1821 booklet

“A Visit From St. Nicholas” was first published in the Sentinel of Troy, New York on December 23rd, 1823. At the time of publication, the author was unknown. A few years later, Clement Clarke Moore came forward and claimed the poem and he continues to be listed as the author to this day. However, some scholars believe that Major Henry Livingston Jr., instead, should be considered the author.

Whoever is responsible for writing it, put a name to each of the eight reindeer. The first six are listed as Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet and Cupid. The final two, in this poem, are labeled as “Dunder” and “Blixem”. In Dutch, those words mean thunder and lightning.

“On! Comet, on! Cupid, on! Dunder and Blixem”

While Santa’s seventh and eighth reindeer are commonly known as ‘Donner and Blitzen’ today, it wasn’t always that way. Dunder eventually switched to Donder and then finally landed on Donner. Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer helped with the name change.

How did we get to Nine?

During the Great Depression, the department store Montgomery Ward turned to a company employee to create their Christmas Coloring Book giveaway. The job was given to 34-year-old copywriter Robert L. May. May used the bullying he received as a child in combination with the story of The Ugly Duckling to create the ninth reindeer.

Image Courtesy of The Smithsonian

In 1949, Gene Autry recorded the song version, written by May’s brother-in-law. Autry’s version of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer sold 2 million copies in its first year and eventually became one of the best-selling songs of all time.

And Then there were Ten?

Side note: In 1902, famed Wizard of Oz creator, L. Frank Baum wrote a story entitled ‘The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus’. His story included a list of ten reindeer, none of which matched the original names. Baum named his Flossie and Glossie, Racer and Pacer, Fearless and Peerless, Ready and Steady, and Feckless and Speckless.

A Reading of the Original by Curator 135

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