On Dunder and Blixem

Much more difficult with only one reindeer, but Santa was more svelte back then.

It’s blogday and the last blog before Christmas so when thinking about what to write, I asked the universe for a holiday-themed kernel to put into the frying pan of contemplation to create the literary kettle corn that feeds these pages. A little sweet, a little salty.

My original post stated that this is where I put my stuff so you can look at it, and so it really doesn’t matter what these posts are about anyway.  It’s just stuff that comes to me on Wednesday morning.   Kiki always asks me what the post is about, and I say, “I don’t know yet.”  And that’s usually after it’s been published.

Anyhoo, since most of these posts start with “On” as in “On Being A Pain In The Ass,” and it’s almost Christmas, “On Donner and Blitzen” seemed like a natural.  And sure, I know the Christmas songs and stories, and “The Night Before Christmas” and all that, but don’t know much about them.

This called for extensive research, or short of that, reading a few Wikipedia pages.  And you, dear reader, will be the beneficiary.

Donner and Blitzen, especially the latter, sound German in origin. And they are. Sort of. These names came not from “The Night Before Christmas” but rather from an obscure poem published anonymously in 1823 by Clement C. Moore, an ancient languages professor at a seminary in New York City. Moore wasn’t German; he descended from English stock.  His dad was the Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New York.

Wow, look up reindeer names and see what you find out!  But wait, there’s more!

Being a Bishop evidently paid quite well in those days, and so the young Mr. Moore inherited a vast estate of money and land from pops.  That land?  Many acres of worthless apple orchard in Manhattan. The name of this estate? Chelsea.    That’s right.  It’s still Chelsea.

Moore tried to stop NYC from extending 9th Avenue through his estate, but soon figured out that he could subdivide the lots on the Avenue and sell them to wealthy New Yorkers. He established covenants in the deeds that limited the land use to residential, and even imposed restrictions on architecture, which is why Chelsea has its distinctive neighborhood look until today! Who knew?  This slave-owning, poetry-writing rich bastard had a way with real estate!

Yes, indeed, he was a slave owner and anti-abolitionist.  Moore was kind of an asshole.  He attacked Thomas Jefferson’s religious beliefs (as in his belief in freedom of religion) when Jefferson was running for re-election.  He thought Jefferson’s views would have a “Tendency to Subvert Religion, and Establish a False Philosophy.” Heavy. And stupid.

But he did a few good things also, to give credit where it is due.  He gave a good chunk of his land to the General Theological Seminary of the Episcopal Diocese, which exists to this day.  There appears to have been a bit of quid pro quo, however: he gave them land, they made him a professor.  Also, Moore helped establish and sat on the board of directors for the New York Institution for the Blind.  “Institution” is such a warm, comforting word, don’t you think? But anyway, that was a good thing he did there.

Somewhere in all of this activity, in addition to a substantial work on the Hebrew language(?!), Moore published “A Visit From St. Nicholas” in the Troy (NY) Sentinel on December 23, 1823. which much later became “Twas the Night Before Christmas” with some edits and additions.

There was some controversy that the poet was not Moore but a colleague of his… Livingston, I presume? No, seriously, the guy’s name was Major Henry Livingston, Jr., a Dutch New Yorker.  This confusion was put to rest by a document collector who had kind of incontrovertible evidence: the original “A Visit From St. Nicholas” in Moore’s own hand.  That’s like a bad movie plot point: they can’t figure out who wrote the (letter/article/poem/will) and someone runs in shouting “wait, I have a copy of the confession in Mr. Moore’s own hand!”  But that’s kind of what happened.

And what penmanship!  It begs the question: did his laundry lists look this good?

Poetry before computers looked like this. Wait, before ball-point pens also.
By Clement Clarke Moorecredit: New-York Historical Society – ‘The Invention of Santa Claus’ Exhibit, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22672101

Please note that all of these facts are from Wikipedia.  Who has time for real research?  Not me.  Of course, in most circles Wikipedia is unacceptable as a reference, but this is hardly an academic composition.  Also, I donated to Wikipedia to help them keep it going, did you?

Where were we?  Oh, yeah, Donner and Blitzen.  They are also known as Donder and Blixen (German). Or Dunder and Blixem (Dutch, as if we can tell the difference).  The poem has been published with all of these different names, which, in either language, mean thunder and lightening. So now at least we know what these names mean.  Maybe everyone already knew this?  Personally, I never delved this deeply into this poem.  Or any poem, probably.  Except Leaves of Grass. But that’s another day, another blog.

Anyway, Thunder and Lightning makes perfect sense.  Sure, you’re flying around while pulling this heavy-set guy and maybe a couple elves on a sleigh laden with toys for every kid in the world, you’ll need some thunder and lightning.  These reindeer don’t have wings, you know.  But what of the rest of the names? And who brings toys for the grownups?

By Loozrboy from Toronto, Canada - Here comes Santa Claus!Uploaded by Skeezix1000, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8470658
Now that’s more like it! Hey, Rudolph, pull over, I want to get a falafel.

“Now, Dasher! Now, Dancer! Now, Prancer, and Vixen! On, Comet! On, Cupid! On, Dunder and Blixem!”

So, yeah, Donner and Bitzen, or Dunder and Blixem, supply the power in the form of thunder and lightning. The other no-brainer is Comet. Pure speed and light. And Dasher is fast, Dancer is agile. That’s why they are there.

Now, Prancer? Tough one. Not sure what he does for speed or thrust but at least his employment proves that Santa wasn’t homophobic, and oh, you Vixen! I can’t think of anything clean for that one so let’s leave it be, but it is well known (as we pass the corporate headquarters often on the 101 at Universal City) that a certain porno company is named for this particular reindeer.

Which brings us to Rudolph.  Sorry folks, Rudolph is a fraud.  We all love Rudolph, so don’t get mad, but the fact is, he’s not one of the original eight.  He’s a twentieth century add-on.  His name doesn’t  mean anything (more on that below).

Of course, adding a Rudolph does make some sense.  As you know from the song, it was a foggy Christmas Eve, so theoretically Santa may have needed an extra light up front, and so taking along a red-nosed reindeer, even one who was bullied and abused by his peers, makes solid Santa-sense.

But then why not a more effective light? A fog lamp of sorts? Rudolph’s glowing red nose would seem better utilized as a warning beacon for other approaching sleighs or small aircraft than as a light for Santa to steer by.  And does Santa steer?  He has reins and in some renditions a whip (gasp! Not jolly ol’ St. Nick!) in others, but that could just be for show.  Maybe the reindeer know where go to, like those navigational/guidance systems in the big transcontinental aircraft, those guys don’t even have too… sorry where was I?

Well, don’t blame, or credit Moore.  Rudolph was created in 1939 by a guy named Robert L. May working for Montgomery Ward, the department store chain.  He made up the character for a Christmas coloring book. They sold 2.4 million copies of that bad boy! One would presume May got a nice raise and a bonus.  Companies used to do that kind of thing in those days.

Before settling on Rudolph, May had considered Reginald or Rollo.  No.  Really. “Reginald the red-nosed reindeer, had a very shiny nose….”  Anyway, a company called The Rudolph Company, which may have been purchased by another conglomerate, still owns the rights to Rudolph and makes tons of money off it, so I will probably receive a Cease and Desist letter by the end of this week.

What have we learned from all of this? The same as usual.  Not much. Maybe that there’s a lot in a name, except for when there isn’t.

Well that was fun wasn’t it?  And here’s another Rudolph song you probably have heard.  IMHO ( as the kids say), any time you get to hear a Chuck Berry song is a good time. Please turn the volume on your listening listening device to 11.  This too is poetry.

Run  Rudolph Run – Chuck Berry (YouTube link)

Thanks for reading the blog and supporting the book everyone!  It’s been a great experience and we will continue into 2019!  If you enjoyed the book and have a moment, please feel free to leave a review.  If you didn’t like it, don’t tell anyone.

Smoking In Bed: dreams of love, sex and terrorism (on Amazon)

Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and maybe Happy New Year but I might try to slip one in next week before the end of 2018. Looks like it’s going to be an interesting holiday season in our nation’s capital.  Fasten your seatbelts! Drive safely!

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