Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Santa Claus and his origins in Germanic Folklore

The notion of Santa Claus as the bringer of gifts at Yule can only be traced back to the the late 19th century in England, having reached County Durham in the northeast of England by the 1880s. However he can be traced back to mainland northern Europe much earlier than this and indeed the name Santa Claus is derived from the Dutch Sinter Klass from St. Nicholas who is a xtianised version of the Germanic God Woden. However despite the comparatively late arrival of Santa Claus to England the concept of an old man with supernatural powers granting gifts at Yule can be traced further back in England to Father Christmas in the 16th century and indeed even earlier than this. The English version that we have today is no doubt a fusion of these various mythical beings.

Father Christmas in England has always been portrayed as an aged and bearded man wearing either green or red robes, lined with furs. He appears to have supernatural and ineed elf-like qualities, being able to transport himself down chimneys. Clearly whether we call this being Santa Claus or Father Christmas these are most certainly xtianised names for a much older and pre-xtian entity. Yule is an ancient midwinter festival observed by the Germanic and other northern European peoples and its origins are lost in antiquity for it is so ancient.

We are provided with certain clues as to the origin of this being. His physical appearance certainly resembles that of Woden and in particular his shaman like qualities. Woden is also the leader of the Wild Hunt which is a feature of the Yuletide. The belly laugh of Santa Ho Ho Ho! is speculated to be an echo of the shouts of Woden whilst riding His Furious Host at Yuletide.

"With the devil is associated the figure of an enormous giant, who can stand for him as well as Wuotan; and this opinion prevails in Switzerland. There the wild hunt is named  diirsten-gejeg (see durs, thurs, p. 521): on summer nights you hear the durst hunting on the Jura, cheering on the hounds with his hoho; heedless persons, that do not get out of his way, are ridden over." (Jacob Grimm, Teutonic Mythology Volume 3, page 920)

However we know that Woden's favoured means of transportation apart from using His feet (he was known as The Wanderer) was His eight-legged steed Sleipnir. One of His Norse names was Jolnir, again closely associating Him with Yule. The fact that He is a rider of a horse however does not accord with the image of Santa Claus who typically uses a sleigh drawn by reindeer, clearly an indication of an arctic attribute. However the driver of reindeer does of course hint of a shamanic quality which accords more with Woden than say Thunor. However some scholars consider Thunor to have a white beard and amongst certain northern European peoples the Thunder God is viewed as an old man. This is particularly the case with the Lithuanian Perkunos or the Finnic Ukko.

We are reminded that the reindeer which pull Santa's sleigh are called Donner and Blitzen-'thunder and lightning' from the Old Dutch 'Dunder and Blixem'.  Again this is a strong indication that this figure is in reality Thunor. Santa's usually red robes also adds to the idea that this is Thunor as red is a colour that is most closely associated with Him. Interestingly the colours of red, white and black that feature on the modern day's Santa's garments hearken back to the colours of old Germany and also to the Aryan caste system which I have discussed quite comprehensively in previous articles. Possibly the black in the costume is derived from the soot in the chimneys!

Interestingly in Sweden the sleigh was viewed as not pulled by reindeer but by goats-the Julbocker and driven by the Jultomten. In the first edition (1895) of H.A. Guerbers Myths of Northern Lands (this particular edition is out of print-only later and slightly differently worded editions are currently available as far as I am aware) it is stated:
"The fireplace in every home was especially sacred to him, and he was said to come down through the chimney into his element, the fire."
In later editions of this work it is certainly stated of Yule:
"One month of every year, the Yule month, or Thor's month, was considered sacred to Frey as well as to Thor, and began on the longest night of the year, which bore the name of Mother Night."
I do not wish to be dogmatic about such things. Clearly the original mythological figure that Santa Claus is based upon is a fusion of both Woden and Thunor, possibly hinting at an older deity that encapsulates features of both Gods. I have hinted at such a concept in the past and the Gods willing I will expand upon my theory in a future article.