Old Sir Christmas

By John Matthews and Caitlin Matthews from their book The Winter Solstice: The Sacred Traditions of Christmas (used here with the Quest Books permission)

The Birth of Santa Claus

His story is a complex one. Many will know that Santa means saint, and is of modern usage. Others will tell us that the nearest point of origin for Santa Claus – in time, anyway – is St. Nicholas of Patara, a third-century Bishop of Myra, near the present-day village of Demre in Asia Minor. Born in Turkey to a wealthy family around A.D. 270 he became well known for his anonymous gifts to the poor. Tradition has it that he left these offerings in the houses of selected recipients, sneaking in during the night to leave money or food in the shoes or stockings of children – though it is doubtful whether they would have worn either in that hot land, assuming they could afford such luxuries anyway. However, such is the tradition, and it is from this that we derive the custom of hanging stockings by the fireplace, while in various countries such as Austria, Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, and Holland, December 6th, St. Nicholas’s official day, is also Children’s Day, and is considered just as important as Christmas Day itself. In fact, it is only in comparatively recent times that we have conflated the two dates – the 6th and the 25th – making the latter a general festival for the exchanging of gifts.

Good Old Saint Nick

If we go back to the Middle Ages, about 1,200 years after St. Nicholas actually lived, we can see how this might have begun. In the words of Naogeorgus, the author of the Latin Vita Sant Nicolai (Life of St. Nicholas):

The mothers all their children
on the eve do cause to fast,
And when they every one
at night in sense sleep are cast,
Both apples, nuts,
and prayers they bring,
and other things beside,
As caps, and shoes, and petticoats,
with kirtles they hide,
And in the morning found,
they say: “St. Nicholas
this brought.”

This has most of the ideas that we associate with the figure of Santa Claus, but there is another, stranger story told of St. Nicholas, which actually points the way to his true origin far more clearly:

An Asiatic gentleman, sending his two sons to Athens for education, ordered them to wait on the bishop for his benediction. On arriving at Myra with their baggage, theytook up their lodgings at an inn, proposing to defer their visit till the morrow; but, in the meantime, the innkeeper, to secure their effects to himself killed the young gentlemen, cut them into pieces, salted them, and intended to sell them for pickled pork. St. Nicholas, being favoured with a sight of their proceedings in a vision, went to the inn, and reproached the landlord with the crime, who, immediately confessing it, entreated the saint to pray to heaven for his pardon. The bishop, moved by his confession and contrition, besought forgiveness for him, and supplicated restoration of life to the children. Scarcely had he finished, when the pieces reunited, and the resuscitated youths threw themselves from the brine tub at the feet of the bishop; he raised them up, blessed them, and sent them to Athens, with great joy to prosecute their studies.

A.T. Hampson: Popular Customs and Superstitions of the Middle Ages

On one level this story may be regarded as nothing more than a pious anecdote illustrating the sanctity and goodness of the saint. But there is more to it than that. The notion of a person being dismembered and put back together, as portrayed in this tale, again derives from a far older time, and when it is placed in conjunction with certain other factors, a surprising new image begins to appear that has all the characteristics of the traditional Santa without any of its later overtones of bishops and Christianity.

The Gift Givers

In comes I, Old Father Christmas.
Welcome – or welcome not,
I hope Old Father Christmas
Will never be forgot.

The Longparish Mummers’ Play

Santa Claus is really only the latest of many figures which have come to be associated with bringing gifts on the night of December 25th. In France presents are given on New Year’s Day and called entrennes, a name that can be traced back to the strenae, green branches, exchanged between people at the Roman feast of the goddess Strenia. In Sicily it is an old woman named Strina who brings gifts at Christmas, continuing a tradition that began in the days of the Roman Empire.

The figure who stands behind the jolly old man of Christmas is older even than this, however. In fact, his story takes us back to the beginning of recorded history, when some other characters climbed up trees of a different kind, and returned with gifts for everyone. These were not toys or perfume or watches, but messages concerning the year to come, or the turning of the seasons, or the fate of the world. These people were the shamans, who performed the functions of priest, historian and record keeper, scientist, and magician. Of course there were shamans all over the world, and in most cases they performed the same or similar functions, but, for obvious reasons, it is those who originated in the far North – anywhere from Lapland to Siberia– that interest us most in this context. It is these people who often wore bells on their ritual costumes, who shinned up the central polesof their skin tents, and who returned with the gigts of prophecy and wonder from the Otherworlds. Its is to these people that we have to look for the first appearance of the figure who, thousands of years later, evolved into the jolly old man of Christmas himself, Santa Claus.

If we look for a moment at some of those similarities we can catch a glimpse of the evolution of one into the other. If we dip our hands into Santa’s sack – so like the shaman’s bag of tricks – the first thing we find are the bells that jingle on the harness of the eight magical reindeer. Contemporary accounts of northern shamans, including those of the Altaic and Buryat regions of Siberia and those of the Finns and Laplanders, again and again emphasize the importance of bells in their traditional costumes. These form a double function; as noise-makers to announce the presence of the shaman as he enters the spirit world, and to frighten off any unfriendly spirits who might be lying in wait for him. In addition, iron disks representing the sun or curved in the shape of the moon represent the importance solar and lunar rites among these Northern people– and important point in our consideration of the Solstice itself.

Red Robes and Firelight

Reaching into the sack again we find a red robe or cloak, trimmed with white. Many authorities on shamanic tradition have commented on the importance of the color red in the shaman’s costume. This is, on one level, significant of the sacred blood that links all human beings and that is also perceived as a link between humans and animals, and between the shaman and the earth. It is also, of course, a symbol of fire, that most powerful of magical weapons, as well as the gift of warmth and life to all, especially significant in such cold lands as those we are considering here.

Next in the sack we find a burning brand that signifies the eternal light and the warmth without which all life would perish. The shamans possessed this gift of fire, which initially perhaps they alone had the power to kindle (the number of flint fire-lighters found among shamans’ bundles alone is enough to suggest this) and which was a gift they brought to the tribal people they served. It was believed that these gifts were entrusted to them for the people by the gods and spirits of the land. Here, the symbolism of red fire in the white desert of Winter is a vital image. Is it stretching the point too far to see an echo of this in the red and white costume and white beard of a certain other figure? Certainly the importance of these colors throughout the northern world is beyond question.

Dipping into the sack again we find reindeer with bells on their harnesses, who can fly through the sky and cover vast distances in no time at all. This is yet another echo of the shaman’s journey into and through the heavens, in search of the gifts of fire and prophecy. In addition, there is the obvious importance of reindeer to the people of Lapland and Siberia is obvious. To these people the reindeer not only provided a source of food but also skins for clothing and tents, sinews for thread, bones for needles, and, when rendered down, fat for rush lights and
glue to mend pots and fix spearheads in place.

So Santa is an old man dressed in red who comes out of the dark forest of the North on a sleigh pulled by reindeer. It is significant then that the shamans hunted the reindeer, ran with them in spirit Corm, drew their shapes on rocks with red ochre as a means of capturing them, even saw them as a symbol of the newly born sun of Midwinter. A wonderful modern poem speaks of the hunting of spirit deer, who, impervious to the hunter’s arrows, were a symbolic reference point for hunting the real creatures:

A red deer comes over the hill,
Shoot your arrows as you will,
The deer will stand there still!

Alison Mcleay: Solstice

The Shaman in the Tree

Consider the image of the shaman climbing down through the smoke hole of a skin tent with bells jingling, bearing in his hands a red painted wooden reindeer. The shamans saw to it that the sun returned from that point when, at the very edge of the horizon, it dipped and, for a moment, was gone. Then, summoned by the ancient language of the elements, it returned. Sun images were hung on a tree, that also formed the central pole of the tent and represented the axis of the world, the connection which leads to the heavens the final destination of the shaman who was, indeed, the midwife of the sun.

Imagine some of the questions asked of the shaman. As Alison Mcleay put it in her wonderful evocation of the Solstice in a radio broadcast she made in 1985:

Shaman, will the sun be reborn?
Will we have a good harvest?
Will we catch enough fish, will
there be enough meat to eat,
will the reindeer drop enough
offspring to keep us through another year?
What will the new year
bring for us, for me?
Tell us, shaman, make your
journey and bring us the
gifts of your seeing?
You are the bringer of gifts,
the protector, the magician,
the future is yours to see, the
gifts of the future and the past
—tell, us shaman, tell us.

Sacrifices were hung on the living tree: animals, birds, perhaps once even humans, such as Odin hanging on the windy tree of Yggdrasil to bring back the gifts of the runes. Odin’s eight-legged horse Sleipnyr may also be linked with Santa’s sleigh and its eight reindeer. And that song – next out of the sack:

0 the rising of the sun, and the running of
the deer, The playing of the merry organ,
sweet singing in the choir

The Holly and The Ivy

These are old images, stolen by a later time, and reflect two aspects married under the Solstice tree: the running deer who were the totem creatures of many different Northern tribal groups, and the singing of carols in the stone forests of the Christian world. The old ways were not wholly forgotten, not even after the coming of the Christ child, who brought the gifts of light and eternal life to the world, and who received gifts from the wandering wise men – the Magi of biblical and pre-biblical tradition. They too contribute to the image of Santa the gift bringer, and, as we have seen, there is more to them than meets the eye.

About John Matthews:
John Matthews is an international authority on Celtic folklore, the Western mystery tradition, and the Grail legends, and is one of the great culture-bearers of our times. He has written over forty books on the Arthurian legends, esoteric wisdom, and the Grail. His Quest Book “The Winter Solstice” won the Benjamin Franklin Award in 1998. With his wife and frequent coauthor Caitlin, John established the Foundation of Inspirational and Oracular Studies. To visit the author’s website, www.hallowquest.org.uk