thomas nast image of santa claus.jpg

Santa and his REindeer

Father Christmas, Saint Nicholas, and Santa Claus are based on two separate stories.

Father Christmas, normally dressed in green coat, a sign of the returning spring, was originally part of an old English midwinter festival.  The stories of St. Nicholas (Sinter Klaas in Holland) came to America via Dutch settlers in the 17th Century.  From the 1870s on, Sinter Klass became known in Britain and America as Santa Claus.  With him came his unique gift and toy distribution system – reindeer and sleigh.

Santa’s modern visage is the result of Victorian creativity:  An 1881 illustration in Harper's Weekly by cartoonist Thomas Nast.  Nast, known best of his editorial cartoons attacking political corruption, changed the color of Santa’s suit to red, added fur trim, replaced a hood attached to the coat with a stocking-type night cap, and added a large black belt and buckle.

Santa’s flying sleigh and reindeer have separate lineages.   The sleigh portion begins in 1812.  Writing under the pseudonym Diedrich Knickerbocker,  American author Washington Irving refers to St. Nicholas as "riding over the tops of the trees, in that self-same wagon wherein he brings his yearly presents to children" in his revised version of A Complete History of New York.  However, there is no mention the wagon’s means of propulsion.

The first known written account of Santa’s reindeer occurred in 1821.  That year, New York printer William Gilley published a sixteen page booklet titled A New Year's Present, to the Little Ones from Five to Twelve Number III:  The Children's Friend by an anonymous author.  In the book, reindeer are introduced into the Santa Claus narrative:

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.

Illustration to verse 1 of  Old Santeclaus with Much Delight , published in 1821.

Illustration to verse 1 of Old Santeclaus with Much Delight, published in 1821.

In an 1822 interview published in New York's Troy Sentinel, Gilley elaborated on the booklet's author and the topic of reindeer. Though he did not identify the author, Mr. Gilley responded:

"Dear Sir, the idea of Santeclaus was not mine nor was the idea of a reindeer. The author of the tale but submitted the piece, with little added information.  However, it should be noted that he did mention the reindeer in a subsequent correspondence.  He stated that far in the north near the Arctic lands a series of animals exist, these hooven and antlered animals resemble the reindeer and are feared and honored by those around, as you see he claims to have heard they could fly from his mother.  His mother being an Indian of the area."

By the 19th century, the widespread knowledge of the use of reindeer in Artic areas as draft animals cemented the connection to Santa Claus.

Christmas stockings by the chimney (though the tradition was centuries old at the time) and the first listing by name of the eight flying reindeer pulling Santa's sleigh are found in Twas the Night Before Christmas…

When what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a miniature sleigh and eight tiny reindeer,
With a little old driver, so lively and quick
I knew in a moment it must be St. Nick.

More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And he whistled and shouted and called them by name;
"Now, Dasher! now, Dancer! now, Prancer and Vixen!
On, Comet! on, Cupid! on, Dunder and Blixem!
To the top of the porch, to the top of the wall!
Now, dash away, dash away, dash away all!"

Originally called “Dunder and Blixem”, the Dutch words for thunder and lightning, by the mid-19th century the German words "Donder and Blitzen" were widely used.   For example, in An American Anthology, 1787–1900, Edmund Clarence Stedman reprints the 1844 Clement C. Moore version of the poem, substituting the German spelling.   During the 20th century, “Donner” replaces the name “Donder” in common usage.