Of course we all know Rudolf, the most famous of all, but pretty sure that the other deers of Santa, Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet and Cupid do not directly ring a jingle bell in our average Dutch Christmas ears. Pardon me, I forgot two, which Christmas connoisseurs would not forgive me: Donner and Blitzen! Donner and Blitzen? That sounds a bit more ‘next door’ to our Dutch ears and it does indeed: apart from the ‘and’ these reindeers seem to stem from the German words ‘Donner’ and ‘Blitzen’ (to be translated in Dutch as respectively ‘Donder‘ and ‘Bliksem‘).
Although one could logically derive from this that the reindeers themselves are German or originate from Germany, neither is the case. The roots of these reindeers are – of course – not mundane, but wonderful and imaginary, namely a poem called ‘Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas’, published on December 23, 1823 in the newspaper The Troy Sentinel. But the poem – opening with ’Twas the night before Christmas’, which has become maybe one of the most well-known opening sentences of a poem, at least in the United States – was published anonymously. The Troy Sentinel had no idea who the author was: ‘We know not to whom we are indebted for the following description of that unwearied patron of children – that homely, but delightful personification of parental kindness – SANTE CLAUS, his costume and his equipage, as he goes about visiting the fire-sides of this happy land, laden with Christmas bounties; but, from whomsoever it may have come, we give thanks for it.’
The equipage of Santa Claus – as follows from the poem – includes, amongst others, a miniature sleigh and eight tiny reindeer. The little old sleigh driver – so lively and quick – Santa Claus aka St. Nick whistles and shouts, and calls the reindeer by name: ‘Now! Dasher, now! Dancer, now! Prancer, and Vixen, On! Comet, on! Cupid, on! Dunder and Blixem.’ Dunder and Blixem? But should it not be ‘Donner and Blitzen‘? As we all know one should always rely on the original, so ‘Dunder and Blixem‘ it is as long there is no evidence that it should be ‘Donner and Blitzen‘ or a variant like ‘Donder and Blitzen‘. Although I can already hear the – typical Dutch – ‘so what?’ – the exact name of the reindeer has become a crucial part of a ‘serious’ controversy about the authorship of the poem, which debate, one cannot deny, bears also a tinge of (copyright) law (although statutes of limitation might prevent us from actually litigate ‘the case’ before a Court of Law). Two authors, both Americans, are mentioned to be the author of this poem, an icon of American Christmas culture: Clement Clarke Moore (1797-1863) and Henry Livingstone, Jr. (1748-1828). But who actually wrote the poem?
In print the poem was first attributed to Moore in 1837 (eight years after the death of Livingstone). In 1844 Moore published Poems, a collection of his poems, in which the ‘Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas‘ was acknowledged as having been written by Moore. The story goes that Moore composed the poem on a snowy winter’s day during a shopping trip on a sleigh and that ‘his’ Saint Nicholas was inspired by a local Dutch (there we are!) handyman (a ‘portly, rubicund Dutchman’ to use Moore’s own words) and Saint Nicholas (on which we based our ‘Sinterklaas’, who was transformed into the secular ‘Santa Claus’ in American culture, most probably after a merger with the British Father Christmas). For the ‘so what?’- saying people amongst us, it might now be worthwhile to mention that one of the four ‘original’ manuscripts of A Visit handwritten by Moore was bought by a manuscript dealer for $211,000 at Christie’s in 1997 and one must not be surprised that the manuscript might have an actual value of over one million dollar.
But the authorship of Moore – who by the way changed the ‘Dunder and Blixem’ in later versions of A Visit in ‘Donner and Blitzen’ – is not undisputed. Over the years – until these days – heirs of Henri Livingstone, Jr. state and try to prove (lately even with the help of well-known scientists, specialised in ‘textual analysis’ and ‘forensic linguistics’) that not Moore, but Livingstone – a Revolutionary War soldier, ‘juge-de-paix’, and poet – is the author of A Visit. One part of the current ‘evidence’ for this claim is a letter – which predates Moore’s Poems in which he acknowledged the authorship for A Visit – from Norman Tuttle (the owner of The Troy Sentinel) to Moore, in which Tuttle informs Moore regarding his inquiry concerning the publication of A Visit. The answer from Tuttle seems to indicate that Moore tried to exclude that his ‘claim to fame’ could not be unmasked (Tuttle writes among others: ‘At the time of its first publication I did not know who the Author was – but have since been informed you were the Author’). Furthermore, scholars add that Moore – contrary to Livingstone – had no Dutch background, which is the reason why Moore – there we are – changed the Dutch ‘dunder and blixem’ in the German ‘donner and blitzen’.
Since the proof of the pudding is ultimately in the eating, only a miracle might enable the Livingstone heirs to exclusively claim the authorship of Henri Livingstone, Jr. for A Visit, because that is what you need if the alleged author has died and there is no proof in writing whatsoever that he really is the ‘anonymous’. It is not too far-fetched to believe that until then, the whole matter is in the eye of the beholder. In the meantime, the authorship remains a matter which exercises many minds. And don’t you think the matter has not been taken to court – how moot that court may be – yet. After the case, before a large amount of spectators, resulted in a ‘hung jury’ last year in the Rensselaer County Courthouse (New York), a retrial – which was broadcasted live from the courtroom – took place on December 7, 2014 in the same courthouse. And miracles do exist: the jury found unanimously in favour of Henri Livingstone, Jr.
‘And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose.
He sprung to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew, like the down of a thistle:
But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight –
Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night,’
Gino van Roeyen