Who Is Santa Claus?
Many of today’s Christmas celebrations are rooted in pagan practices. And Santa isn’t an exception.
The winter solstice is a time to celebrate the return of the sun following the shortest day in the year. It’s no wonder the church adopted these holidays as the birth date of their Savior. But from ancient Celtic and Norse mythology we also enjoy such holiday traditions as holly and mistletoe (sacred to the druids), the yule log, and even Santa Claus in his aspects of Father Time, or Father Winter, or the Holly King as part of our Yule History.
The Pagan Origins:
We have to go back a bit find the pagan legend and myth associated with Santa.
One of the first places to start is with the Germanic people and the Norse God Odin.
The 13th Century Poetic Edda is a complication of stories and poems from Scandinavian history, some as early 985AD. In this work and from Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda we learn about Odin riding an eight-legged horse named Sleipnir, that can leap great distances. At Yule, Odin leads a great hunting party through the sky in celebration. This story gives rise to comparisons of Santa and his 8 reindeer flying through the sky.
In some traditions of Odin’s Yule time ride, children could place their boots near the chimney filled with treats for Sleipnir and Odin would reward them for their kindness with food, candy or gifts. The tradition still continues Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands. In other Germanic countries the practice has been replaced with hanging stockings.
On the Celtic side, the origins of the Holly King are little dubious, but there are links to the Great Kings of Ireland and the legend of the Holly King. With going too far into the history of Ireland, Between 8000-7500 BCE the Ice bridge between Scotland and Ireland collapses. Tribes of around 50,000 to 60,000 hunter gatherers are now “trapped” in Ireland. The population dwindles to about 10,000 as animals and food run out sustaining themselves in a variety of methods, including the consumption of mildly poisonous Holly berries. Around 6500-5500 BCE the Cuilleain (“Holly” (holy) men step onto the scene. Also known as the “Shining Ones” of Wicklow Hills, these men save the dwindling population from barbarity and are the first priest kings to preach self-wisdom, organized religion for humanity and salvation. Through their efforts to save their people, some of these early Priest Kings sacrifice their lives in battle. From these early priest kings, the concept of the Holly King who saved his people from the depths of the winter ice is born.
Through these early mythical legends, The Holly King begins his battle with his twin brother the Oak King at the Summer Solstice. As the year is wanning the Holly King prevails and begins preparations to save and maintain his people through the cold winter. In order to accomplish his mission, he travels the land to hunt, fish and harvest. Transporting these life saving items in a wagon or sled pulled by eight deer. These ‘gifts’ of life are provided to all his people, and in exchange they provide care and comfort to his team of deer.
There is also suggestion that the 8 reindeer plays pagan significance. Just follow along here, it comes together in the end. Even in those ancient times the number 9 was an important spiritual number. 9 witches often made up a coven. 9 feet was the diameter of a perfect circle. And maybe that’s why “the whole 9 yards”; which refers to the 9 yards of material for a Great Kilt worn by many Celtic highlanders is so important. When we think of Santa we think of Santa and his 8 tiny reindeer. And most people focus on the 8 reindeer. Well now add Santa. 9 souls traveling through the winter sky to bring presents for the rebirth of the year. It’s a stretch, but there are those who believe this is where the 8 reindeer got their start.
The Holly King lived way up North, where he could survive in the cold during the reign of his brother in the spring and summer. The Oak King who needed the warmth to survive, lived in the warm forests in the south and falls into sleep while his brother of the cold reigns over the world during the fall and winter months.
Ancient pagan deities such as Befana (a gift-giving Roman goddess); the Holly King (a Celtic Winter god); and Thor and Tomte (Norse gods who, respectively, rode across the sky in a chariots drawn by goats and gave presents to children at the end of the year) have all fed into the Santa legend.
In many of these early pagan legends, presents are given to children or young families to represent abundance and fertility.
After all this is the time of the rebirth of the Sun. Presents were exchanged to honor that rebirth and to give wishes or hopes to the person receiving the gift for abundance and fertility in the coming year. Now don’t assume that ‘fertility’ means giving birth to a child. Remember these people had to live off the earth and the crops they grew. They didn’t have grocery stores on the corner to trot down to and buy food for their families. So in most cases the fertility was for the coming growing season.
Santa didn’t become a Christian figure until the 3rd century with Nicholas, the Bishop of Myra. He lived on what is now the coast of Turkey. Nicholas suffered for his faith, was exiled and imprisoned. After his release, Nicholas attended the Council of Nicaea in AD 325. He died December 6, AD which became a festive day to honor this Bishop and his life. It’s still a day recognized in many European countries as St. Nicholas Day. His parents died in an epidemic while Nicholas was still young. Obeying Jesus’ words to “sell what you own and give the money to the poor,” Nicholas used his whole inheritance to assist the needy, the sick, and the suffering. Many stories are told of his generosity, and caring. Especially his protection and care of children. Because of his life work, he became synonymous with Santa Claus. Though many of the stories retold today cannot be verified and are likely just oral stories that were created to entertain children and to further incorporate pagan legends with Christian figures.
It’s impossible to point to the one real ‘first’ Santa, because Santa is a culmination of mythological legends and stories. But from many of the earliest pagan stories and legends we can find pieces of the Santa legend in our Celtic and Scandinavian mythologies.
The Evolution Of Santa:
Santa gets his name from Dutch legend in the form of Sinter Klaas or “Sinterklaas”. Historical documents suggest that Sinter was brought by settlers to New York in the 17th century. As early as 1773 the name appeared in the American press as “St. A Claus,” but it was the popular author Washington Irving who gave Americans their first detailed information about the Dutch version of Saint Nicholas. In his History of New York, published in 1809 under the pseudonym Diedrich Knickerbocker, Irving described the arrival of the saint on horseback (unaccompanied by Black Peter) each Eve of Saint Nicholas.
This Dutch-American Saint Nick achieved his fully Americanized form in 1823 in the poem A Visit From Saint Nicholas more commonly known as The Night Before Christmas by writer Clement Clarke Moore. Moore included such details as the names of the reindeer; Santa Claus’s laughs, winks, and nods; and the method by which Saint Nicholas, referred to as an elf, returns up the chimney. (Moore’s phrase “lays his finger aside of his nose” was drawn directly from Irving’s 1809 description.)
There are many Celtic scholars who point Santa’s beginnings to the Celtic Holly King, who has been depicted with a Holly wreath as a crown. Or as the Druid Holly King who wore holly in his hat. In both cases, the Holly King traditionally wore green garments with red accents. What else would a “holly” king wear.
His clothing seems to have changed color in the late 1800s when Santa started wearing the modern red. The Dutch “Sinterklaas” is an elderly, serious man with white hair and a long, full beard. He wears a long red cape over a traditional white bishop’s alb. Some point to the influence of the Catholic church and its attire for the different levels of the Priest Hierarchy for this color combination.
In the 1840s, an elf in Nordic folklore called “Tomte” or “Nisse” started to deliver the Christmas presents in Denmark. The Tomte was portrayed as a short, bearded man dressed in gray clothes and a red hat. As migrations of people traveled through Scandinavia their traditional influences also began to merge. By the end of the 19th Century, Norway and Sweden had also began integrating these images into their winter cultural celebrations. Most notably replacing the Yule Goat, who brought presents with the Dutch influenced Sinterklaas.
British and Dutch versions of the gift-giver merged even more as migrations from Europe came to the Americas. “Santa Claus” by name, was first used in the American press in 1773, but he had lost his bishop’s apparel, and was at first pictured as a thick-bellied Dutch sailor with a pipe in a green winter coat. The influence of Scandinavian cultures continued as “A New-year’s present, to the little ones from five to twelve” is published in New York in 1821. In this little seasonal book, an anonymous poem “Old Santeclaus” is described as an old man on a reindeer sleigh, bringing presents to children. Later in 1823, The Sentinel in Troy New York prints “A Visit From St. Nicholas”, better known today as “The Night Before Christmas”. In this poem and story Santa is still a small old elf and the original reindeer were named Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Dunder and Blixem (Dunder and Blixem came from the old Dutch words for thunder and lightning, which were later changed to the more German sounding Donner and Blitzen).
One of the first modern images of Santa came in 1863 by American cartoonist Thomas Nast for Harper’s Weekly. In 1869 a color collection of Nast’s pictures were published in which Santa appears in a red suit. This collection included a poem by George Webster “Santa Claus and His Works”, which places Santa’s home near the North Pole in the ice and snow. Images of Santa in red became more popular in the large cities of the east and midwest, but it still hadn’t caught on throughout the rural countryside or even around the world.
By the 1900s additional images depicting Santa in a red suit sprang up each season furthering the image around the country.
Regional images however still held onto old cultural traditions. This was especially true throughout Europe. It wasn’t until the Coca-Cola Company commissioned Michigan-born illustrator Haddon Sundblom to develop advertising images using Santa Claus in 1930, that his image began it’s world wide view as we know it today. Even though Sundblom didn’t invent the image of Santa in a red coat, their advertising strongly helped emphasize this image into rural American and around the world. Like Nast before him, Sundblom made his version a human-sized version of Santa Claus, rather than the elf of Moore’s poem. [Coke Lore & Santa History]. In modern versions of the Santa Claus legend, only his toy-shop workers are elves.