The children love Santa Claus, so I thought it would be fun to discuss his origins with the children. There are many good articles on the Internet, and I have relied heavily on those to create a cobbled-together, simplified, and more child-friendly take that I can read to my kids. All credit is due to the following sources for this information:
- Who is Santa Claus? by Lady SpringWolf
- How Odin Became Santa Claus: Symbolism and Pagan Origins of a Gift-Giving Saint by Anja Heij
- The Holly King and Other Lore from Earthwitchery.com
- The Ghosts of Christmas Past from the blog Curious New York
All of these posts make for fun reading for older kids and adults.
Once upon a time in northern Europe, the great God Odin, or Wodan, reigned over all the Norse Gods. It is from him that we have the name Wednesday, or Wodan’s day. Odin was the god of wisdom, magic, runes, poetry, and war. His name means, “The Inspired One.”
Odin could travel between the worlds like a shaman does. His two black ravens, Huginn (Thought) and Muninn (Memory) brought him news of what was happening in the world. Odin flew overhead on his white horse Sleipnir, who had 8 legs. Odin was said to be a tall, old man with a white beard and wearing a cloak. He was beloved among his friends and followers.
Odin only had one eye because he had offered one of them in exchange for wisdom at the well of Mimir. This was given to him, and he was able to see the outer world with his good eye, and he could see the inner worlds with his black, removed eye. This ability to see both worlds made him a powerful and enlightened being.
Odin represents light and darkness, white and black, which are both part of the Oneness of all things.
In some traditions of Odin’s Yule-time ride, children would place their boots near the chimney, filled with treats for the horse Sleipnir. Odin would reward them for their kindness with food, candy, or gifts. This tradition still continues in Belgium, Germany, and the Netherlands. In other germanic countries the practice has been replaced with hanging stockings.
The Celts and the Holly King
From the ancient Druids, we get a pair of kings who fight for supremacy at Yule.
The Oak King (or king of the waxing year) kills his brother, the Holly King (the king of the waning year) at the time of the Winter Solstice, or Yule. The Oak King then reigns until the Summer Solstice when the two battle again, this time with the Holly King winning the battle. Holly and mistletoe are traditional at Yule because they commemorate the battle. The holly was hung in honor of the Holly King, and the mistletoe (which grows high in the branches of oak trees) was hung in honor of the Oak King.
Although the Oak King and the Holly King are mortal enemies at Midsummer and Yule, they are two sides of a whole, and neither could exist without the other.
After the Holly King’s victory at the Summer Solstice, he 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. He transports these life-saving gifts in a wagon or sled pulled by eight deer (these animals were sacred to the Celtic Gods, and there were a total of 8 solar sabbats per year). He shares them with all of his people, and in exchange, the people provide care and comfort to his team of deer.
The Holly King has been depicted with a Holly wreath as a crown. He traditionally wore green garments with red accents, just like a holly tree.
The Holly King lived 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 of the south, and he falls asleep while his brother of the cold reigns over the world during the fall and winter months.
The ancient Romans celebrated Saturnalia, which featured big feasts with a lot of merrymaking, dancing, and the exchange of gifts. This festival was meant to celebrate the return of the sun on the shortest days of the year and to counteract the depression due to lack of sunlight.
In the Norse myths, Balder is a Sun God and the son of Frigg, a Goddess for whom Friday is named (Frigga’s Day). Frigg was a loving mother who went to earth and asked all of the animals and elements not to hurt Balder. Rocks and metal agreed that they wouldn’t form arrows and kill him, and others promised her as well. But Loki, a trickster, discovered that Frigg had not asked the lowly mistletoe not to hurt her son. So Loki made an arrow made of mistletoe and tricked the blind God of Winter to shoot it into the air. The arrow hit Balder, badly hurting him, and therefore the Sun. The Yule (Winter Solstice) was a vigil to see if the wounded Sun would live another summer.
In the 1840s, an elf from Nordic folklore named Tomte or Nisse started delivering the Christmas presents in Denmark. The Tomte was portrayed as a short, bearded man dressed in gray clothes and a red hat. He rode through the sky in a chariot draw by goats.
In many of the early 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 for abundance and good crops in the coming year.
In the 3rd and 4th centuries, a Christian bishop named Nicholas was said to have lived in Myra, Turkey. He had a reputation for goodness, benevolence, and for performing miracles for the people. Many stories are told of his generosity and caring, especially for children. In those days, the primary color for the robes of priests and other church officials was white, although the colors changed over the years, and he was often portrayed in red robes later.
It isn’t certain that Saint Nicholas was a real person. As a result, the Catholic church demoted him and removed his feast day (December 6) from their calendar.
Sinterklaas and Santa Claus
Santa gets his name from the Dutch legend of Sinterklaas or Sinter Klaas. Dutch settlers in the United States brought this legend with them, and he was popularized by writers such as Washington Irving.
Sinterklaas is an old man with white hair and a long, full beard. He wears a long red cape over a traditional bishop’s alb, or long white tunic.
The name “Santa Claus” was first used in the American press in 1773. By then, he had lost his bishop’s clothing and looked like a large-bellied man with a pipe in a green winter coat. In the poem Old Santeclaus in 1821, he was described as an old man on a reindeer sleigh who brought presents to children. In the poem A Visit From St. Nicholas, the author Clement Clarke Moore included details such as the names of the reindeer; Santa Claus’s laughs, winks, and nods; and the method by which Saint Nicholas (whom he refers to as an elf), returns up the chimney.
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. A poem by George Webster called Santa Claus and His Works places Santa’s home near the North Pole in the ice and snow. Over time, images of Santa in red became more popular.
Your children will always lead the way with their own questions, but you can also use these to get the ball rolling:
- How are these stories similar? How are they different?
- Why do you think the image of Santa changed over the years?
- Which of these stories did you like the best? Why?
- What is the Spirit of Santa Claus? What does it mean to you?