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Did Odin inspire the Santa Claus legend?
I've been meaning to get back to the "Ask Me About Odin" questions, since I have a few of them saved up. I spent most of November writing a book (which I am now about 40,000 words into--probably about halfway through the first draft) at the same time as I was trying to keep my little Etsy business going. Sadly, this didn't leave a lot of time for blogging. Things are still crazy-busy around here (now, after really awesome sales throughout the month of November, I need to work on getting some inventory back in my shop again, plus I am taking two online courses--more about that in another post, perhaps). But this landed in my inbox this morning and I figured, why not write a little something seasonal today?
“I keep hearing from different sources that Odin is the inspiration for Santa Claus, but I hear the same thing about Thor too. Which, if either, is it?”
As some long-time readers of my blog are probably aware, I learn heavily towards the “Yes, Odin inspired Santa!” side of this question, but that’s at least partly because my first memory of Him, when I was eight years old, involved seeing Him as Santa Claus (okay, a somewhat sinister version of Santa Claus) leading the Wild Hunt. There is a lot of evidence that Odin’s role as Wild Hunter may have either directly or indirectly fed into the Santa myth, as the Germanic tribal peoples as well as the pagan Scandinavians believed the Wild Hunt swept through the skies in order to drive away the evil spirits of winter, thus ensuring fertility for the following year’s crops. Yup, you heard me right: as scary as the Wild Hunt is, they’re essentially the good guys. And if that idea doesn’t frighten you, it should. This is the true gift the Wild Hunt and Odin (and thus Santa Claus, if you believe they’re one and the same) bring to us at Yule, and our ancestors knew it. When They’re doing Their job correctly, you never even have to find out what They saved you from.
There is also a fair amount of evidence that our current Santa myth may have been at least partly influenced by Thor, who is thought to spend the winter slaying as many hostile frost giants as possible–”hostile” meaning those who are a direct threat either to Asgard (home of the Northern gods) or to mankind. Thor rides through the skies in a chariot pulled by two goats (which are at least horned ruminants, if not quite reindeer), His color is red (unlike Odin’s which is blar, a Norse word usually translated as blue/black or grey, the color of death), and He is known for being somewhat more jolly of temperament than His father; all of these facts undoubtedly played into our current Santa myth. I have also heard some bids for Freyr as Santa, probably because of His lordship of the elves paralleling Santa’s army of elven toy makers.
When you get right down to it, none of the Scandinavian gods match up with Santa in every detail, probably because Santa is (in my belief, anyway) more of an amalgam of various gods and spirits, as well as one Christian saint–although I do believe any of the three gods mentioned above (and probably Others as well) can wear the Santa “mask” when They see fit.
So, where is the evidence connecting Odin with Santa, specifically? Well, the trail I myself followed (at the age of eight, roughly) is this: Santa as he is so widely known today—the Santa of greeting cards and shopping malls, the jolly old fat elf in his red suit trimmed in white fur—is a fairly recent invention, only going back to the late 1800s, when a Harper’s Weekly cover and a Coca Cola ad popularized his current appearance. Before that, when his lore was first brought to this country by Dutch immigrants, he had been depicted as an old, bearded Dutch sailor with a pipe, a green winter coat, and a wide-brimmed hat (bearing, for me, echoes of Odin’s famous floppy-brimmed hat). This Dutch version of Santa was known as Sinterklaas and he traveled across the world to visit boys and girls on a white horse instead of in a sleigh pulled by eight reindeer. He was attended by a servant known as Black Peter, or Zwart Piet, who scouted out the area and prepared the way for his arrival, and also did the dirty work of delivering the presents and punishing any naughty children by beating them with a switch.
Sinterklaas was, in turn, based on Saint Nicholas, a 3rd century saint with a penchant for miracle-working and secret gift-giving. On December 6th, his feast day, Dutch children left carrots and oats in their shoes by the fireplace as an offering to Saint Nicholas’ horse, and in the morning they would find the carrots and oats replaced by candy and presents. St. Nicholas made quite the impressive figure sitting astride his white horse, with his high bishop’s miter and fur-trimmed red robes; and yet sometimes, instead of the bright cherry-red we would associate with Santa Claus, his robes were depicted as a darker, blood red, or purple, or blue.
And, the reasoning goes, St. Nicholas was in turn based on Odin–or was, at least, the saint who replaced him in Scandinavian countries during the Christianization of Europe. Picture Him as a lean, robust silver-bearded figure in dark blue and grey, His cloak flying out behind Him as He rides, His floppy-brimmed hat pulled down to cover His missing eye, the one remaining eye burning like a blue supernova. Of course, instead of a white horse, He rides a grey eight-legged horse, Sleipnir (whose eight leggedness perhaps fed into the idea that Santa’s sleigh was pulled by eight reindeer), and instead of Black Peter, He is of course accompanied by his two ravens and two great wolves. We can keep the elves in the story (after all, there are plenty of elves and fae in the Wild Hunt), and we can add in a hoard of ghostly warriors on ghostly mounts, a slew of other indescribable monstrous creatures, a bevy of ghostly woman clad in white (the Valkyries, or corpse goddesses), and a pack of red-eyed black hounds. yipping and baying as they race along after the wolves through the storm-torn winter skies.
Quite the picture, isn’t it? Merry Christmas!
A few links to check out for more information/entertainment on this topic:
He Sees You When You're Sleeping (a story by yours truly)
Image: Sinterklaas_by_Nhaar. Additional images for this post can be found on my blog.
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