Washington Post
January 11, 1994


"Jingle Bells"

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.


Back to the Christmas Menu Page