Santa Claus is Coming to Town
The bombardment is well under way - everywhere I turn I see visions of Santa Claus, hear the tinny jingle of shop carols and run into people wishing me a Merry Christmas. December - a time for familes and joy and defeating the forward marching enslaught of fat jolly beared men.
With kids it's hard to resist the invasion into my home. They are fast absorbing the idea of Santa, and it leaves me overwhelmed at times. In defiance, I have begun a tradition in the family of December Spirits, a tradition I want to share with other beleagured Paganfolk.
There are quite a few December Spirits and a variety of stories to go with them. Most are now connected with Santa Claus - also known as Sinterklaas, Kris Kringle, St Nicholas, De Kerstman, Per Noel, Jultomten, Ukko, Tomten and Joulupukki (to name just a few varients) - through the Christianisation of the old myths.
Who was "Santa Claus" originally? According to many conservative Christians, he began as Nicholas of Myra - a wealthy but religious man who gave away his family inheritence to the poor - particularly children. It is hard to separate apparent fact from fiction when it comes to Nick, but his devotion to his God is undoubted. After he became Bishop, a time of great persecution overtook the Christians, and with many other followers of Christ, Nick spent years incarcerated and tortured. He refused to give up his faith, and eventually, when Emperor Constantine secured the release of the faithful, Nick resumed his Bishopric and continued to minister to his flock and give generously to children, maidens and the less fortunate. From this Nick comes much of the Santa costume - the red of the Bishop's gown and the mass of white hair and beard, and in some cultures the sheperd's crook or Bishop's staff. It's probably safe to say the rotund nature of Santa isn't due to Saint Nick.
It's also probable that Santa isn't due to Saint Nick, but rather Saint Nick evolved from a collection of earlier beings who gave their appearance, nature, name to the one we call Santa Claus. Historians, including both Religious Historians and Folk-Lorists agree on this, refusing to credit St Nick with even existing as there is absolutely no evidence to support his existence. They believe he is a Christianised version of older Pagan gods - assumed and absorbed by Christianity as with so many other things.
Trying to track Santa's progenitor down is hard. Little evidence remains, and over the years he has drawn from every civilisation the Christians were seriously affected by. But we can try. If we look at the Santa Claus legend, we notice a number of features. His name, the activities in December, the reindeer, the physical appearance, the costume and the association with children. These seem to be the dominant images/ So where did they come from?
Santa's name - Saint Nicholas - suggests a potential linkage to a being known as Hold Nickar. The name, Hold Nickar, has been tied a combination of candidates - Hnickar, Nicor or Nikr. Where does this take us?
In Scandinavian mythology, the nikr or nicor are water demons (similar to kelpies) renowned for preying upon humans who get too close. Interestingly, they are portrayed as either children with horse legs, or old men with long hair. I think, aside from the coincidental idea of long-haired old men, we can discount the nikr. How about Hnickar (also known as Hold Nickar which in all likelihood is an anglicised version of a Scandinavian name). There is reference in Germanic mythology to Hnickar as an alternate version of Odin in his destroyer-mode - specifically, Odin the Destroyer through the use of storm and ocean. In legend Saint Nick is often linked to the ocean, and many of his temples are converted ones originally sanctified to Poseidon and Odin. This makes the link between Saint Nick and Hold Nickar as Odin of the Oceans very probable.
Working with the link between Odin and St Nick, I am still puzzled by the name "Hold Nickar" as it is not a Nordic name. But, looking at the various names by which Odin was named, there are two that could easily be the progenitors of Hold Nickar - Hjaldr Hnikar, which means Inciter of Battles. A very appropriate name for Odin the Destroyer, and audibly, the similarity to Nicholas is clear. Incidentally, Odin had long grey hair and a thick grey beard. The Odin connection interests me a lot because of his link to Thor. In the various Scandinavian myths (as discussed below with Julbock, Jultomten and Joulupukki) the December God/Spirit traveled about the countryside with a buck goat. What's the relevance of this, I hear. Well, goats are sacred to Thor who rode about in a chariot drawn by two goats - Thunder and Lightning, (yet another storm reference). I can't help but feel that the name, Santa Claus, is a remnant of some lost myth involving Thor and Odin.
What about the activities associated with Santa? Gift giving and punishment for children... A common feature of the Teutonic and Scandinavian "Santas" is the legends revolving around punishment. Indeed many of the legends seem to have morphed from an original involving gift-giving according to merit, rather than "because it's expected". Sinterklaas has been known to leave lumps of coal in the children's shoes, or birch twigs for their parents to whip them with. A few of the Scandinavian ones talk of gnomes who lived under the floor. Responsible for the gift giving, they could just as easily withhold and bring trouble to the home if they weren't treated with due respect. The Belsnickle was quite violent with his whips and sticks. Most of these less benevolent beings also brought gifts for the well-behaved child. Unfortunately, over time, with the focus upon Christian attitudes, these darker aspects were dropped and hidden away, leaving a sickly sweet shadow of the original - an old jolly man interested only in stuffing yet more gifts into the ever-waiting hands of children around the world. Ukko, a Finnish sky-deity, has evolved into a gift-giver. Very little is known about his origins, although we do know he used a reindeer-pulled sleigh. Since he wasn't originally a giver of presents, he's not a source but rather a victim!
Thus far we seem to have a being created by the merger of Nordic gods with Scandinavian and Teutonic mystical beings (see the links given below for stories about their roles in December). But how about Santa's appearance? And his flying reindeer? And that strange tendency to clamber about in chimneys?
Well Ukko has the reindeer, but they don't fly. And he wasn't into the gift thing. But there is an interesting alternative source of inspiration based upon the growing belief that some aspects of Santa evolved from some rather interesting customs of many of the Siberian tribes (such as the Koryak tribe). Reindeer-herders, these people had a strong taste for hallucinogenic drugs. Specifically, that made from the Fly Agaric (that lovely red toadstool with white spots). Not only that, but they tended to gather within hide tents to participate in these drug-taking rituals. The Shaman would bring the "gift of the gods" (otherwise known as the drug) to his waiting tribe by climbing through the smoke hole and down the birch pole. The people would consume the toadstools (or the urine of those who had previously consumed it - a safer way to get high. The drug remains potent for up to six passages through the body, and the toxic aspects are filtered out the first time through). One of the known effects of Fly Agaric is that it induces the sensation of flying in those that consume it, and according to records made by observers, the ordinary tribal folk believed this was something the Shaman did regularly - often on reindeer. The physiological effects include a flushed countenance and increased hilarity - often expressed through laughter. In 1739 a Swedish traveller noted down some of these traits for the first time. By 1976 and American mycologist (fungi guy) was suggesting the link to images of Santa.
So we have a group of people waiting inside for their cheery, red-faced, Shaman to fly by on his reindeer and climb down the chimney with his red and white gifts. While we will probably never really know, there is a strong case for this theory, and I think it quite possible that through cultural mingling over time these various elements merged to help create the Santa we know.
All in all, I quite like this rediscovered idea of Santa - some Teutonic-Scandinavian god that ate magic mushrooms, rode on flying reindeer (after trading in his goats), beat up bad kiddies and left presents for all the good boys and girls.
This is, naturally, a very brief look at Santa. I have not touched upon the Roman link to the Saturnalia for example. But in all seriousness, the reality of his origins is way too complex for a brief magazine article. What I can offer are a few stories about some of the December spirits - those who he is linked to in some way, shape or form.