That Reindeer


Washington Post
January 11, 1994

                 Corrections Roll In Like a Clap of Donder

Is it Donner? Or Donder? Here we are more than two weeks after Christmas, and doubts linger about the identity of Santa's seventh reindeer. But responding to irate reader demands and aided by sources at the highest levels of government, The Washington Post decided to get some answers.

We were successful. In fact, Library of Congress reference librarian David Kresh described Donner/Donder as "a fairly open-and-shut case." As we marshaled the evidence near Alcove 7 in the Library's Main Reading Room a few days ago, it quickly became clear that Clement Clarke Moore, author of "A Visit from St. Nicholas," wanted to call him (or her?) "Donder." Never mind that editors didn't always cooperate.

The Donder affair began with a controversial column that appeared in this space Dec. 21, in which The Post and the U.S. Geological Survey tried to decide whether Moore had meant to name his seventh reindeer "Donner" or "Donder" (to refresh your memory, the others are Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid and Blitzen).

Because the referees were looking for geographical places named after the reindeer, they decreed that Moore had written it "Donner" (25 places) and not "Donder" (zippo). "Donder" was boring, and, The Post decided, the word itself "doesn't mean anything." "Donner" means "Thunder" in German.

No sooner had this heresy appeared in print than a somewhat vexed Ms. H.J. Zegers-ten Horn, of Bethesda, dashed off a letter that blitzed through the mails like a comet, pranced into the building, danced through the newsroom and landed like a fat Cupid on the editor's desk. Donder, asserted Zegers-ten Horn with the deflating assurance of someone born in The Netherlands, does mean something: "It is the Dutch, not German, writing and pronounciation of the word 'thunder.' " The Post, red-faced and provincial, called Geological Survey spokesman Donovan Kelly, who disclosed that Moore "of course used code names. The real names of the flying reindeer remain classified cartographers' secrets." Sen. Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) immediately called for a special prosecutor to conduct an investigation.

Still reeling from these developments, The Post was next broadsided by Mr. John A. Dodds, of Arlington, who maintained that his two sources identified the seventh reindeer not as "Donner," not as "Donder," but as "Dunder," as in "dunderhead." But where Zegers-ten Horn was gently chiding, Dodds was combative:

"By what right or authority does the Post have to change an original piece of literature?" he thundered. "Let's not leave it up to unidentified poetry anthologies, unnamed 'referees,' or may I be so bold, the Post. Why don't we ask the Library of Congress?"

So we did.

As you may know, the Library of Congress is no bookmobile. It has three buildings, 535 miles of shelves and 86 million items, among them a Gutenberg Bible, a collection of flutes and a Ken doll. (Don't ask). Senior congressional officials said the library had already clipped Dodds's letter to the editor and wasn't surprised when The Post came mooching around the card catalogues looking for help. No, the sources said, there is no final arbiter of American literature, but the Library generally can find the goods when you ask them in person.  Kresh, a graybearded 53, is a published poet and career librarian who came to the reference room 27 years ago and, he said, "never left." Who can blame him? The place he works in was built in 1897, feels like a cathedral and appears on souvenir plates at the airport.

Kresh was on Donner/Donder/Dunder like a puma. A quick visit to the Oxford Companion to American Literature produced a biography of Moore (New Yorker, 1779-1863) and the news that "A Visit. . . " was first published in the "Troy Sentinel" newspaper in 1823 and reappeared in an 1844 collection of Moore's verse. A card catalogue check yielded a number of places to find "A Visit. . . " including the 1844 "Poems," by Clement C. Moore. Once Kresh had the book, he turned to Page 125, and there it was: "Donder."  "More important," Kresh said, "Moore wrote the introduction, an indication that 'Donder' was the way he wanted it spelled."

Further confirmation came quickly. In "The Annotated Night Before Christmas," which discusses the poem in an elegantly illustrated modern presentation, editor Martin Gardner notes that the "Troy Sentinel" used "Dunder" (one for Dodds), but dismisses this as a typo. Gardner cites the 1844 spelling as definitive, but also found that Moore wrote "Donder" in a longhand rendering of the poem penned the year before he died: "That pretty well sews it up," concluded Kresh. Kresh said he found the search "interesting" because no one had ever asked about Donder before. Now, he said, he could make a permanent file like the one he has for questions about "Hoosier poet" James Whitcomb Riley and an "old outhouse."

We didn't ask.

Dunder & Blixem

The original publication of the poem in the Troy Sentinal newspaper in 1823 to specified "Dunder & Blixem", which is Dutch for thunder & lightening.  See

There is also considerable evidence that Moore was not actually the author.
ch Results for ' dunder blixem '

                                   Literary Sleuth Casts Doubt on the Authorship of an Iconic ...

                                   ... He followed a printer's error that made them "Donder and Blitzen"
                                   instead of the Dutch-American words "Dunder" and "Blixem," meaning thunder and lightning. ...

Literary Sleuth Casts Doubt on the Authorship of an Iconic Christmas Poem


         Every Christmas for more than 150
         years, children have hung their
         stockings by the chimney with care and
         learned to thank Clement Clarke
         Moore for the tradition.

         Moore, a wealthy Manhattan biblical
         scholar, went down in history as the
         man who in 1823 created the
         American image of Santa Claus as
         author of the "Account of a Visit from
         St. Nicholas." Better known as "The
         Night Before Christmas," it became
         one of the most widely read poems in
         the world.

         But did Moore really write it? In a new
         study of the poem's early history, Don
         Foster, an English professor at Vassar
         College and a scholar of authorial
         attribution, accuses Moore of
         committing literary fraud. He marshals
         a battery of circumstantial evidence to
         conclude that the poem's spirit and
         style are starkly at odds with the body
         of Moore's other writings.

         In a new book, "Author Unknown," (Henry Holt & Company) Mr.
         Foster argues that "A Visit From St. Nicholas," first published
         anonymously in a Troy, N.Y., newspaper in 1823, closely
         matches the views and verse of Henry Livingston Jr., a
         gentleman-poet of Dutch descent.

         Livingston, who lived in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., died before Moore
         was ever named as the poem's author.

         Livingston's family first noticed the poem's growing popularity
         two decades later and has insisted ever since that Livingston
         wrote it. But without physical evidence these claims came to
         naught. Last year Mary Van Deusen, Livingston's
         seventh-generation descendant and an amateur genealogist,
         sought Mr. Foster's help.

         "The real issue was always, would a man of God, a bible
         professor, tell a lie?" Mr. Foster said in an interview. "No one
         was willing to say, yeah, he would. But he did."

         Mr. Foster, a well-known literary gumshoe, pioneered the
         technique of studying the details of a text's wording and syntax
         to establish authorship, using computerized archives to look for
         telltale influences. He is best known for identifying Shakespeare
         as the author of the anonymous poem "Funeral Elegy" and the
         journalist Joe Klein as author of the novel "Primary Colors." Mr.
         Foster has become the Livingston camp's ardent partisan,
         frequently comparing Mr. Moore in the book to Dr. Seuss's

         His case is still untested by other scholars, but it promises to
         create a lively debate about a poem that has become an
         American icon. Whoever wrote it played a formative role in
         shaping the modern American Christmas, said Stephen
         Nissenbaum, author of the history "The Battle for Christmas"
         (Knopf, 1996). Before 1820 Americans typically pictured St.
         Nicholas, also known as Santa Claus, as a skinny, stern bishop
         visiting children to dispense discipline as often as gifts, and not
         necessarily on Christmas Eve. The poem helped recast St.
         Nicholas as a jovial elf and turn Christmas into a time for giving
         gifts to children.

         It first appeared at a time when genteel men of letters often
         published anonymously because newspapers were considered
         beneath them. Not until about 20 years later, after the poem's
         popularity had spread through reprinting around the country, did
         Moore step forward as its author. He later explained that his
         long silence stemmed from embarrassment over what he called
         his trifle. No original manuscript has ever surfaced, and no one
         has ever convincingly challenged his role.

         But in Mr. Foster's account, Moore, owner of an estate covering
         what is now Chelsea, was too much of a grouch to write such a
         playful poem. He took a stern approach to being a parent, and
         his poems and writings often focused on the annoying noise of
         "clamorish girls" and "boisterous boys." In other Christmas
         poems he admonished his own children to be humble, mindful of
         their mortality and aloof from transient pleasures. He
         condemned "immodest verse" with "no other recommendations
         than the glow of its expressions and the tinkling of its syllables,
         or the wanton allurement of the ideas that it conveys."

         The poem's St. Nicholas enjoys a pipe, but Mr. Moore railed
         against tobacco as "opium's treacherous aid." Mr. Foster has
         also caught Moore in a reindeer mix-up. Writing out the poem by
         hand later in life, he misstated the original names of Santa's last
         two reindeer. He followed a printer's error that made them
         "Donder and Blitzen" instead of the Dutch-American words
         "Dunder" and "Blixem," meaning thunder and lightning. Moore
         spoke German, but not Dutch.

         "People called the first version a misprint, but to a Dutchman
         like Livingston it was exactly right," Mr. Foster said.

         He has also unearthed an apparent precedent for plagiarism.
         Donating a sheep-farming manual to a library, Moore wrote
         inside the cover that he had translated it from French. But a
         small copyright note printed on the last page credits someone
         else as sole translator.

         "Clement Clarke Moore was no George Washington," Mr.
         Foster said.

         Historians say the idea of Moore's authorship first surfaced in
         1837, when his friend Charles Fenno Hoffman floated the
         notion. But Mr. Foster argues that Hoffman had the wrong poem
         in mind. The other poem, "Old Santaclaus," appeared
         anonymously in a pamphlet published in 1821.

         Foster says that poem shares several of the hallmarks of
         Moore's writing, including frequent use of "dread," reliance on
         the adjective "various" and an unusual use of the passive form
         "seen." "Old Santaclaus" devoted four stanzas to castigating
         naughty children.

         Moore kept mum for another 14 years, and his friend Hoffman
         had a nervous breakdown before anyone thought to ask him
         how he reached his conclusion.

         Finally, at his family's behest, in 1844 Moore took credit for the
         famous poem, including it without fanfare in a collection of his
         more solemn verses. But not before he checked that "the coast
         was clear," Mr. Foster said.

         Shortly before stepping forward, Moore wrote to the owner of
         The Troy Sentinel, the newspaper that first published "A Visit,"
         to ask if anyone knew where it came from. Everyone who knew
         had died within a few years of its appearance.

         The crux of Mr. Foster's case is in the literary roots of "A Visit."
         Whoever wrote it, Mr. Foster says, followed closely in the
         tradition of the 18th-century poets William King and Christopher
         Anstey. Both wrote popular, bawdy poems in an anapestic
         meter, with the accent on every third syllable. One of King's
         poems, for example, described a hung-over Apollo struggling to
         pilot his chariot across the sky. Among other details, Apollo's
         "coursers" "prance" like Santa's reindeer.

         "A Visit" borrows its meter, style, images and vocabulary from
         both poets and a few others in the same vein, Mr. Foster writes.
         But Moore wrote only one undisputed anapestic poem, "The Pig
         and the Rooster," moralizing about laziness and arrogance.

         It borrows almost nothing from the poems that influenced the
         author of "A Visit." Moore generally mimicked pious poets, Mr.
         Foster said.

         Henry Livingston, however, lifted frequently from such bawdy
         anapests, by Mr. Foster's analysis. Livingston wrote anapestic
         verses to his family every Christmas. Many of them borrow
         language and form from King and Anstey, and so resemble "A

         To make his case Mr. Foster has compiled a litany of stylistic
         quirks common to Livingston's known works, the texts that
         influenced them and "A Visit." For example, Livingston's writing
         is peppered with the unusual use of "all" as an adverb, and so is
         "An Account of a Visit From St. Nicholas," in phrases like "all
         through the house," "all snug in their beds" and "dressed all in

         The first known uses of "all snug" are in the ribald anapests that
         influenced Livingston's other poems. Another example: the
         benediction "Happy Christmas." Almost everyone else said
         "Merry Christmas," but Mr. Livingston consistently used "happy."

         "A Visit" is a hodgepodge of Livingston's favorite images, Mr.
         Foster writes. Livingston's light poems are crowded with flying
         children, animals, fairies, boats and other vehicles, like Santa's
         flying sleigh and reindeer. Livingston also fancied himself an
         expert on the Arctic and wrote elsewhere of Lapland's reindeer.
         He also wrote of the Norse god Thor, whose chariot was pulled
         by flying goats. Livingston would have been familiar with the
         Dutch legend of annual visits from St. Nicholas.

         The original author of the poem also sprinkled extraneous
         exclamation points through Santa's reindeer roll call, another
         Livingston habit. "It is vintage Livingston," Mr. Foster said.

         Ms. Van Deusen, who enlisted Mr. Foster's help, said that some
         of Mr. Livingston's other descendants retained letters and
         manuscripts that could potentially gain some value if he was
         established as the author of the famous verse. But she said she
         was motivated only by family pride, with no financial stake in the

         Clement Clarke Moore II, a descendant of the famous poet, said
         he was not concerned about the challenge. "It is the poem itself
         that is important, not the authorship," he said.

         Mr. Foster faces an uphill battle in convincing historians and
         antiquarians that Moore did not compose the famous poem, at
         least until other scholars test his assessment. Some experts cite
         the evidence that Moore wrote out four copies of the poem by
         hand late in his life. They have become among the most
         valuable documents in American history. Seth Kaller, a New
         York antiquarian dealer, bought the fourth in 1997 for $211,000
         in an auction at Christie's.

         "It is like someone coming forward and saying that he wrote
         'The Star-Spangled Banner,' not Francis Scott Key," Mr. Kaller
         said, "or that he wrote the Gettysburg Address, not Lincoln."