How Many Reindeer Does Santa Have?

Santa Claus rides reindeer sleigh. Winter landscape. Christmas vector illustration

It’s a question that can stump you in a trivia game or that can give you that ‘(rein)deer in the headlights’ look when your children ask it – “How many reindeer does Santa have?” And an even tougher question – “What are the names of Santa’s reindeer?”  You will be hard-pressed to find someone who cannot name Rudolph. From there, people are then typically hit or miss as to how many of Santa’s reindeer they can name after this famous red-nosed reindeer. You can try to sing along and muddle your way through at least some of the names, but before long most of us fade off and are unable to complete the list. What’s even more interesting is that those who can name all of Santa’s reindeer may not know that this list of Santa’s reindeer names has actually changed slightly since it first originated. To ensure you get that next trivia question right, educate yourself on the real back story behind Santa’s reindeer names.

The Original List of Santa’s Reindeer

The first mention of Santa even being associated with his flying reindeer was in the classic Christmas poem we all know and love as “Twas the Night Before Christmas.” Originally entitled “A Visit from Saint Nicholas,” this poem was published anonymously in 1823 in the Troy Sentinel newspaper in upstate New York. Two authors – Clement Clarke Moore and Henry Livingston Jr. – have both been credited with authoring this famous piece of Christmas literature. Moore was the first to claim ownership of this poem, and he was given credit for crafting this poem for quite some time.

However, scholars now believe it was Livingston who may have actually authored “Twas the Night Before Christmas,” and in researching this we also come upon a change in the names of Santa’s reindeer! The initial publication of the poem in the Troy Sentinel was as follows:

More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,

And he whistled, and shouted, and call’d them by name:

Now! Dasher, now! Dancer, now! Prancer, and Vixen,

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

If you’re scratching your head thinking that just does not sound right, you are not alone! Who are Dunder and Blixem? Even those who could not list all of Santa’s reindeer will likely know this is just not right. But this is how the original version of the poem was printed. So the correct list of Santa’s reindeer names as it was originally intended is:

Santa Claus rides reindeer sleigh. Winter landscape. Christmas vector illustration

  • Dasher
  • Dancer
  • Prancer
  • Vixen
  • Comet
  • Cupid
  • Dunder
  • Blixem

You simply cannot be told you are wrong in providing this list. It is the original list of Santa’s eight reindeer. So what happened?

Enter Donner and Blitzen

As previously stated, Clement Clark Moore claimed he authored “Twas the Night Before Christmas.” He went on to reprint the poem in a collection of his works in the 1840s. It is in this reprint that ‘Dunder’ and ‘Blixem’ become ‘Donder’ and ‘Blitzen.’ But why? Interestingly enough ‘Dunder and Blixem’ is a Dutch expression meaning ‘thunder and lightning’.  It was Henry Livingston Jr. who spoke Dutch. Moore spoke German. And, in fact, ‘Blitzen’ is the German word for lightning, pointing to the fact that Moore simply changed the reindeer name from the Dutch to the German version. These name changes are the reasons scholars believe Livingston is the true author of this poem.

Now what about ‘Donder’? This is not a German (or Dutch) word for anything. It was likely just a misprint on the part of Moore, who then later changed the reindeer name to ‘Donner,’ which IS the German word for thunder. So while it took several iterations of the poem, poor Donner was finally given the name we hear today. With that many name changes it’s a miracle this reindeer answers to Santa’s call at all!

So now we have a new list of Santa’s reindeer names:

  • Dasher
  • Dancer
  • Prancer
  • Vixen
  • Comet
  • Cupid
  • Donner
  • Blitzen

And one could even argue that replacing ‘Donner’ with ‘Donder’ is not wrong, as it was listed this way for a short time. But the above list is the list of Santa’s reindeer that is recited today in the cherished Christmas poem and in the introduction to one of the most popular Christmas songs. You guessed it….”Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”

Eight Is NOT Enough

No list of Santa’s reindeer is complete without Rudolph. But as you just learned, he was not part of the original list of Santa’s reindeer. In fact, Rudolph did not step onto the scene until a full century later, in 1939. Surprisingly, Rudolph was actually the result of an advertising effort. To be more specific, Montgomery Ward, a large retail store in the 1930’s, decided to create and develop their own Christmas book to use as a marketing tool during the holiday season. They wanted to bring in more customers during the Christmas season in order to increase sales.

The man given the job of writing this book was named Robert May. However, this was a tumultuous time in American history. The Great Depression was still lingering, and stirrings of a world war were churning. To top it off, May’s wife was also sick with cancer. Needless to say, he was not in a good mindset to write an upbeat and jolly Christmas book. The book was to be an animal book, so he was given something to focus on. His daughter loved reindeer, and a reindeer certainly seemed like a good choice given that these creatures led Santa’s sleigh around the world.

Rudolph tangled in a Christmas lights garland

But to make this a great story, May had to draw on his creative juices. As he brainstormed ideas, the thought came to him to create a misfit reindeer. May himself was bullied a bit as a young boy for being small, and this helped spark the idea of the reindeer being taunted and left out. The reindeer in this story was ridiculed for its red nose which made him different than everyone else. However, this nose enabled the creature to save Christmas by leading Santa’s sleigh through a dense fog. May loved alliteration, so when he named this reindeer he focused on names beginning with ‘R’ and eventually settled on Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

Writing the book served as somewhat of a therapy for May, as he lost his wife to cancer while writing it. It gave him something positive to focus on. The book did well for Montgomery Ward, selling over 2 million copies its first year. In 1949, the story was set to music and we all know how well that did. Rudolph is now the ‘most famous reindeer of all’ and usually the first one to be named when listing Santa’s reindeer.

Given Rudolph’s popularity and staying power he is certainly a must-have on any list of Santa’s reindeer. So after some initial naming confusion for poor Donner and Blitzen, our list of Santa’s reindeer names has grown from eight to 9. Are we done yet?

The ‘Other’ Reindeer?

Over the years, other reindeer have been created, whether it be for songs or holiday movies. For example, in the early 1900’s, L. Frank Baum (the creator of “The Wizard of Oz”) wrote a Christmas book with reindeer named Flossie, Glossie, Racer, Pacer, Fearless, Peerless, Ready and Steady. And then there is Olive. This reindeer was the star of a 1990’s holiday film. Olive – ‘The Other Reindeer’ – is taken from an often misunderstood line in Rudolph’s song. Rather than “All of the other reindeer” some folks sing “Olive, the other reindeer”. This lyrical confusion sparked the creation of a new reindeer named Olive.

There have been other reindeer along the way as well, but one would be hard-pressed to convince any true Christmas addict that any of these belong on an authoritative list of Santa’s reindeer names. So here you have it….

So How Many Reindeer Does Santa  Have?

  • Dasher
  • Dancer
  • Prancer
  • Vixen
  • Comet
  • Cupid
  • Donner
  • Blitzen
  • Rudolph

Count ’em up – that is NINE! These are the nine reindeer that lead Santa’s sleigh around the world on Christmas Eve, delivering toys to all the boys and girls. Others may come and go, but these nine reindeer have stood the test of time and proven themselves worthy to be called Santa’s reindeer. And of course do not forget your option to fight for Dunder (or even Donder) and Blixem. Perhaps you can impress your guests with these little known reindeer names at your next holiday party!