Santa Claus, Old St. Nick, St Nicolas, Sinterklaas, Papa Noel, Kris Kringle: whatever we choose to call him, for children, the concept of Father Christmas all boils down to the same idea; that of a magical, generous character that comes bearing gifts at Christmas time. The idea that good children will be rewarded with gifts while bad children will receive nothing has more than a semblance of the idea of rewards in Heaven for the virtuous and is arguably one of the consequences of the Christianization of a much earlier, pagan figure.
These days, the popular image of Father Christmas is of a bearded jovial old gentleman, of portly girth, wearing red. Clearly an expert in quantum physics and a past master in time bending, Santa apparently manages to visit every single household where children live, in one very exhausting night, traveling through the skies with a retinue of magical reindeer that have the powers of flight. In fact, his brightly colored garb is a relatively recent introduction, though not, as popularly supposed, wholly invented by the Coca-Cola corporation but certainly popularized by them, inspired by an earlier cartoon that appeared in 1863, by one Thomas Nast whose work appeared in Harper’s Weekly in the United States. Despite its comparatively recent age, this depiction of Santa as we recognize him today is now ubiquitous; it’s an etching showing a smiling old man with holly tucked into the brim of his hat, clutching a pipe in one hand with a bundle of toys and gifts under his arm. Prior to Nast’s interpretation, Father Christmas’s appearance was much more subdued — a taller, slimmer figure dressed in a slubby brown or green color, as befitting his origins as a pagan spirit of nature.
One of the manifestations of this old nature spirit is in the guise of “Old Winter” personified in a Norse ritual whereby an old man went from door to door, — fed and watered wherever he went. The idea was to propitiate the spirit of the winter: Santa, too, has food and drink left for him. Similarly, the God Odin (who also appears to humans as an old man with a beard) had a huge feast at Yule for the slain warriors in Valhalla. Children left their shoes stuffed with food for Odin’s eight-legged horse, Sleipnir; in exchange, Sleipnir refilled these boots with gifts. These customs seem to have merged with the boisterous midwinter Saturnalia festival of the Romans. Later, in efforts to Christianize this pagan character, he was linked to St. Nicholas, a fourth century Christian bishop born in Patara, Turkey who was known for his generosity. Indeed, in some parts of Northern Europe, St Nick still appears in the robes and hat of a bishop.
Santa’s reindeer, it seems, are particularly appropriate animals to transport him through time and space. They carry much the same symbolism of the horse, able to conduct spirist between the world of the living and the dead. Lapps capture these wild animals in a very canny way. Reindeer are partial to the red and white fly agaric mushrooms, which contain psychoactive substances that induce hallucinations of flying. The Lapps scatter the mushrooms where the animals will find them, then simply wait until the reindeer are intoxicated, and lead them away.
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