Yeah Santa, that (K)Claus. I know that this post may make some people think that I am trying to jump start the season; that's understandable. But in my opinion, the commercialization and rabid marketing of this particular time of year is absurd, and borders on the reprehensible. Oh yes, come on...really! Department stores and other retailers prepping for Christmas before Labor Day? Sad, but true. However, the myth and legend of Santa is really a fascinating trip through history. And, the story of Santa Claus is a huge bag of the myths and legends of many countries.
Many folks still have a hard time accepting that Christmastide is an amalgamation of several ancient pagan holidays that fell on or about December 21st, the winter solstice. The Romans celebrated the Feast of Saturnalia and then the Feast of Sol Invictus, the Invincible Sun (at this time of year, the sun is re-born in the heavens, and begins to grow. The days become longer and the darkness of night, shorter. It was a time that was considered the beginnings of fertility for the land). And during those feasts, gift giving was the norm, not the exception. During the winter solstice in Egypt the people used to hold a major feast for 12 days to honor their god Horus. In the pagan north, that area of Europe north of the Alps, the winter solstice found the people celebrating Yule, a 12 day celebration dedicated to their gods, the return of the sun, and the blessings of the land (think Yule Log here). Their celebration included abundant eating, drinking of alcoholic spirits, and gift giving. There are more examples but these three should give you the understanding that celebrations occurred around December 21st long before the supposed birth of Jesus became a topic of discussion. Here is another interesting tid-bit.
Pope Julius the 1st, circa 350 C.E., placed the birth of Jesus as December 25th, but the actions of a roman politician, Emperor Justinian (542 C.E.) add some confusion. Justinian issued an imperial decree that made sure December 25th was the official day to celebrate the birth of Christ. So, here we have the head of what would become the world's most populous religion declaring Christ's birth date, and almost 200 years later, a roman emperor cemented the date in time through a political decree. If you are wondering why those actions were taken, the answer should be glaringly apparent. The pagan peoples of Europe and elsewhere were the majority population. By making it appear to the pagan people that they would not lose their festivals and holidays, it made it easier for them to convert to 'the new, best thing.' (This is one example of Christian grafting of pagan holidays. There are more but they are not within the scope of this post). So what about the Klaus guy? We're getting there - this was necessary background information. As Christmastide morphed and evolved, so to did the personage of Santa Claus.
In the basic context of the Klaus myth, its pretty much the stuff of Indo-European myth and legend. The god Thor flew across the sky in his wagon, powered and pulled by two magical goats. Wodan (Wotan/Odin), the primary Germanic/Norse god, rode on his magical horse and was accompanied by his minions during what was known as the 'Wild Hunt.' This 'Hunt' happened during the winter solstice/Yule. And Wodan was also known to grant wishes to those who deserved them. Then we have the flying reindeer.
Those flying reindeer that pulled sleighs were plentiful to the many peoples who now celebrate Christmas and whose pagan ancestors were heavily involved in shamanism. And, those shaman's drug of choice was the wild, Fly Agaric Mushroom. This red capped, white dotted mushroom delight produces a hallucinogenic effect within those who ingest it - a perfect gateway for the Shaman to the other-worlds. The modern sciences of archaeology and ethnobotany have firmly established the link between the Shaman, the Fly Agaric mushrooms, and the Shaman's sacred reindeer. Cave paintings, over 30 thousand years old and much more witness truth to that fact. There are those who count themselves members of the above mentioned professions who think that Santa Claus is nothing more than a morphed up Shaman and his reindeer; I like it. As Christianity became more popular, the face of the Klaus man changed.
The famous St. Nicolas of legend began his story in the 4th century. His overall generosity and gift giving to children earned him Church sainthood. During the 10th century, some bright light had a strange idea. This St. Nick's bones were dug up and transplanted to Italy. From that point forward, this Nick's following took off like a heat seeking missile throughout most of continental Europe. Notice the words, "throughout most." The next stop on the Klaus juggernaut takes us to the Netherlands.
The personage of Sinterklass may have been a northern European version of St. Nicolas. Sinterklass's following is not extensive (or is it? Sinterklass/Santa Claus) and is centered mainly in the Netherlands. What is interesting is that the Church celebrates the feast day of St. Nicolas on December 6th, and the celebration of Sinterklass also is on December 6th. Sinterklass comes to the Netherlands on his birthday, December 6th, gifts children with toys and treats, then vanishes till the following year. And to this day, Sinterklass is faithful to his visit. It is obvious that when the early Dutch settlers came to the New World, they brought Sinterklass with them. As time motored on, there were three events within the United States that gave us the Santa Claus legend that we have today.
Clement Moore first published his famous work, A Visit from St. Nicolas a.k.a. The Night Before Christmas anonymously in December of 1823. His children insisted that he take credit for this piece and 20 years later Moore re-published Visit under his real name along with some of his other work. Nothing has done more to cement St. Nicolas and Santa Claus into the Santa myth of today than Moore's Visit.
In 1865, Thomas Nast created the wonderful illustration, Father Christmas. We are treated to the vision of a jolly old fellow holding his pipe in one hand and clutching an armful of toys with the other. The pipe, by the way, goes way back to its shamanic origins. During the time of Nast's creation of Father Christmas, there were many folks who remembered their European parents and grandparents who smoked a similar pipe that contained ..... various ingredients, other than tobacco. And of course, corporate America had its' hand in the final visual appearance of the Santa that we know today.
In 1931, the Coca-Cola Company hired Harold Sundblom to paint them a Santa Claus. And he did, in the image based on the vision of the people of Coca-Cola. After 80 years, this image of Santa is still going strong and showing no signs of weakening. But, you can't help but wonder: if St. Nick really prefers a Coke, why all the fuss about cookies and milk? And what about the polar bears? Just saying.
#1-This post is not meant or intended to bash religion in any form. It is just a short piece on how myth and legend have effected history.
#2-The evolution of Santa is an extensive topic. This post is just the briefest of thumbnail sketches
#3-All information to write this post came from Wikipedia, along with a personal opinion or two.
Copyright @2012 Terry Unger