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Santa Claus's reindeer form an imaginary team of flying reindeer traditionally held to pull the sleigh of Santa Claus and help him deliver Christmas gifts. The commonly cited names of the reindeer are Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner, and Blitzen. They are based on those used in the 1823 poem "A Visit from St. Nicholas" (commonly called "The Night Before Christmas"), which is arguably the basis of reindeer's popularity as Christmas symbols, and in which Donner and Blitzen were originally called Dunder and Blixem respectively.
In traditional lore, Santa Claus's sleigh is led by eight reindeer: Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Dunder (variously spelled Donder and Donner), and Blixem (variously spelled Blitzen and Blixen), with Rudolph being a 20th-century inclusion.
The 1823 poem by Clement C. Moore "A Visit from St. Nicholas" (also known as "The Night Before Christmas" or "'Twas the Night Before Christmas") is largely credited for the contemporary Christmas lore that includes the eight flying reindeer and their names.
The relevant segment of the poem reads:
When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
but a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny rein-deer,
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 call'd them by name:
"Now, Dasher! Now, Dancer! Now, Prancer, and Vixen!
"On, Comet! On, Cupid! On, Donder and Blitzen!
"To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!
"Now dash away! dash away! dash away all!"
As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,So up to the house-top the coursers they flew,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky;
In An American Anthology, 1787–1900, Edmund Clarence Stedman reprints the 1844 Clement Clarke Moore version of the poem, including the German spelling of "Donder and Blitzen," rather than the original 1823 version using the Dutch spelling, "Dunder and Blixem." Both phrases translate as "Thunder and Lightning" in English, though German for thunder is now spelled Donner, and the Dutch words would nowadays be spelled Donder and Bliksem.
Rudolph's story was originally written in verse by Robert L. May for the Montgomery Ward chain of department stores in 1939, and published as a book to be given to children in the store at Christmas time. According to this story, Rudolph's glowing red nose made him a social outcast among the other reindeer. However, one Christmas Eve Santa Claus was having a lot of difficulty making this flight around the world because it was too foggy. When Santa went to Rudolph's house to deliver his presents he noticed the glowing red nose in the darkened bedroom and decided it could be a makeshift lamp to guide his sleigh. He asked Rudolph to lead the sleigh for the rest of the night, Rudolph accepted and returned home a hero for having helped Santa Claus.
Rudolph's story is a popular Christmas story that has been retold in numerous forms, most notably a popular song, a television special, which departed significantly from Robert L. May's original story, in having Rudolph being Donner's son and living amongst Santa Claus' reindeer from birth, and a feature film. In 1998, another film called Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: The Movie was released with Rudolph's father as Blitzen.
Although little information regarding the reindeer is disclosed in The Night Before Christmas, this has only allowed others to contribute to the backgrounds and folklore regarding them in other works (often portraying them with features more common to other species of deer or bovid). There is very little continuity between the various authors of reindeer-related works, resulting in widely varying depictions from author to author; this is further compounded by copyright, which makes crossovers between different authors' works more difficult. Some have even created extra reindeer, but the only case so far in which another's addition to the traditional group achieved general acceptance in common parlance was in the case of Robert L. May's creation of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer".
Since the original poem, other books, movies, and music have contributed to the Christmas reindeer lore. The 1994 version of the film Miracle on 34th Street, for example, asserts that reindeer can only fly on Christmas Eve. Similarly, the famous 1964 Rankin-Bass stop-motion special on Rudolph asserts that Rudolph is the son of Donner (the 1998 movie has him instead as Blitzen's son).
In Prancer, a 1989 family film starring Sam Elliott, Cloris Leachman and Rebecca Harrell, directed by John D. Hancock, an apparently wild reindeer is hurt in a traffic accident, and nursed by a young girl who believes him to be Prancer. The end of the film suggests that the reindeer may be the Prancer.
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Several literature, television, film and music pieces have made references to other reindeer. In many cases, these are explicitly related to other reindeer already in the fleet; however, these portrayals are usually never deemed as official and are constantly being rewritten and altered. The only case in which an addition to the team devised by another was in the case of the famous "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" by Robert L. May, gaining an iconic and traditional status.