You know Dasher, and Dancer, and Prancer, and Vixen, Comet, and Cupid, and Donner, and Blitzen, and the most famous reindeer of all — Rudolph. But do you have any idea where these high-flying characters got their names? While it’s unclear if jolly old St. Nick named his helpers as you would your children, it is clear that their names represent their personalities.
The first publication to officially mention that Santa had any reindeer was an anonymous poem titled “Old Santeclaus with Much Delight,” published 1821. That original publication also came with the first illustrated depiction of Santa with his reindeer. That’s singular, meaning just one reindeer.
- Donner (initially Dunder, then Donder)
- Blitzen (initially Blixem)
In 1939, a little booklet titled Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer by Robert L. May included the ninth and youngest reindeer named Rudolph. Today, it’s widely accepted that Santa has nine reindeer (the eight appearing in Moore’s poem and Rudolph).
We’re working with Clement C. Moore’s eight reindeer (and Rudolph) here because they are the most well-known and most used in literature and popular culture. We may never know for sure why Santa (or Moore) named these reindeer this way, but they’re his pets and who are we to deny him the privilege of pet names?
The word dasher simply refers to a person who dashes (meaning “to run with spirited or brilliant action”). Nothing too fancy here. Santa needed a fast reindeer.
In Clement C. Moore’s time, dasher was also a bit of colloquial slang meaning “a dashing person.” Dashing here describes a person (or reindeer) who is stylish or fashionably showy. So it’s not impossible that Moore might have used a little double-meaning here to describe a reindeer who was both fast and handsome.
Dancer refers to a person who dances. Dancer the reindeer probably doesn’t have a career in ballet, but the name might be a reference to the reindeer being agile and light on its hooves.
Prance is a verb that means “to spring from the hind legs,” which usually applies to horses and other similar animals. It can also mean “to dance or move in a lively manner.”
Similar to Dancer, Prancer’s name probably refers to the reindeer being light on its hooves and being agile enough to steer Santa’s sleigh on the correct route.
Vixen is a noun meaning “a fierce or spirited woman, especially one seen as sexually attractive,” which makes the name Vixen pretty weird on Santa’s part. However, Vixen also more commonly refers to a female fox. That might point to the reindeer’s agility and intelligence, as foxes are often seen as wily, sly creatures.
A comet is a celestial object that’s similar to a meteor or asteroid. Unlike those other celestial objects, comets are unique in that they’re composed mostly of ice.
The name Comet might imply the reindeer’s speed as it streaks through the sky, and the association with ice is a nice touch that connects back to the cold winter season.
Cupid is the ancient Roman god of love, equivalent to the Greek god Eros. Cupid is most popularly depicted as a naked, winged baby armed with a bow and arrow. Traditionally, getting struck by Cupid’s arrow causes you to fall in love. The lowercase cupid is obsolete now, but it was a general term referring to "love or desire."
Cupid (the reindeer) probably isn’t shooting arrows, but the name might point to Santa just being a typically soft-hearted pet owner: He loves his reindeer and might have been really into Roman mythology at the time.
There’s a long-running debate between Donner and Donder for the seventh reindeer. The initial text from Moore used Dunder, which is Swedish for “thunder.” Moore eventually changed that to Donder, which is “thunder” in Dutch.
It’s hard to say when exactly the switch to Donner happened, but some sources suggest it was popularized in 1939 with the publication of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, which officially listed the seventh reindeer as Donner.
The eighth reindeer was initially Blixem or Blixen, which likely came from the Dutch word bliksem, meaning “lightning.” That gives you the perfect thunder and lightning combination of Donder and Blixem.
Moore himself changed it to Blitzen. Blitz is the German word for “lightning,” which kept up with the stormy name pairing.
Rudolph is the English form of the German name Rudolf. This comes from the Germanic name Hrodulf, which joins the roots hrod (meaning “fame”) and wulf (meaning “wolf”). While Rudolph the Reindeer isn’t a wolf (though he is strong like one in dealing with the taunting mentioned in his song), he’s definitely made a name for himself, earning himself his own song and stop-motion animation. If that’s not famous, we don’t know what is!
Although the above are the best known, they aren’t the only iterations of Santa’s reindeer in popular culture. Most prominently, L. Frank Baum, who is best known as the author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz series, wrote a story called The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus in 1902. This work did away with the eight reindeer names from "A Visit from St. Nicholas" and introduced ten completely new reindeer:
- Racer - anything having great speed
- Pacer - a horse bred or trained to have a specific gait
- Reckless - without caution or care about potential consequences
- Speckless - unmarked, spotless, perfectly clean
- Fearless - bold, brave, intrepid
- Peerless - unrivaled; having no equal
- Ready - completely prepared, duly equipped
- Steady - stable in position; having even or regular movement
- Glossie - (glossy) having a shiny surface; having a false air of sophistication or experience
- Flossie - a shortened form of Florence; (flossy) stylish or fancy