By Ceri Norman
Will you be leaving out any offerings this Yule for a bearded, jolly old man? You probably grew out of all that years ago, but you might just reconsider if we look deeper at who that old man with the white beard really is…
Santa Claus is a figure of our childhoods, supposedly based on a 4th century Turkish Bishop by the name of St Nicholas of Myra who gave out gifts to the poor, but look deeper an consider this – do they have many reindeer in Turkey? And how come Santa is said to live at the North Pole or in Lapland? Why, if Santa is based on St Nicholas, does he not live in Turkey? Snow features heavily in the idea of Yule, yet a white Christmas is pretty elusive.
Perhaps the origins of Santa lie further North in Scandinavia, where reindeer and snow are far more commonplace. The ancient legends of the North feature Odin, god of Wisdom, Magick and War. Odin has only one eye, having exchanged the other for wisdom at the well of Mimir, and he traditionally has a long, grey beard. According to the ancient Skaldic poem Óðins Nöfn (Odin’s names) he was known as, amongst other things, “Langbarðr” (Longbeard) even “Jólnir” (Yuleman). Odin is a fascinating deity; He is interested in gaining as much wisdom as He possibly can, and wanders through the worlds as a traveller, sometimes on foot and sometimes riding out to lead the Wild Hunt.
Eight-legged Sleipnir and Santa’s reindeer
The Wild Hunt is known throughout Europe and led by many different gods, goddesses and heroes, depending on local lore. It is a spectral hunt featuring lost souls or monsters, and to see the Wild Hunt was considered a very ill omen indeed. The Wild Hunt is also said to ride out during the winter, most famously at Samhain and Yule. Odin’s steed for the Wild Hunt is the magickal, eight-legged horse Sleipnir, who, according to legend, could traverse great distances in very little or no time at all – exactly as Santa’s reindeer are said to do on Christmas Eve. Sleipnir’s eight legs eventually became the eight traditional reindeer, before Rudolph joined the team.
One gift always calls for another
According to Phyllis Siefker in her book Santa Claus, Last of the Wild Men: The Origins and Evolution of Saint Nicholas, Spanning 50,000 Years, the practice of children leaving out offerings of food and drink for Santa and his reindeer is a leftover from the Norse practice of leaving out gifts for Odin and Sleipnir. In the Havamal (‘Sayings of the High One’ – in other words: Odin) there is the line “one gift always calls for another”, so Odin was said to leave behind gifts of sweets and blessings in exchange for the offerings. In this Odin was given the name Oski (Wish-giver).
The origins of Lapland’s flying reindeerNorse children would put carrots or straw into their shoes as food for Sleipnir and this is reminiscent of the custom of leaving out stockings. The Sámi peoples of Sápmi, better known as Lapland, traditionally used straw instead of stockings in their boots, which were often made of reindeer skin. The Sámi peoples are most famously linked in our imaginations with reindeer herding and brightly coloured clothing. They have a custom of feeding the red and white Fly-Agaric mushroom to their reindeer and collecting the urine to drink. The reindeer’s digestive system gets rid of the more harmful toxins, and leaves much of the hallucinogenic substances behind. Could this be the origin of flying reindeer?
Odin could travel great distances at speed
When Odin travelled in the world of Men, he was often elusive, transitory and disguised. He wore a pointed hat, with a wide brim and long flowing robes and carried a special spear, his equivalent of St Nick’s Crosier. Odin is a shapeshifter and magician, two characteristics that Santa also shares – after all, Santa can allegedly stop time, not to mention get down the chimney.
Odin’s little helpers
Like Santa, Odin was also acquainted with Elves. The word Elf comes from the Germanic Alf, and the Svartalfs (Dwarves) created gifts for the Gods such as Odin’s spear and a special ring that could magically duplicate itself.
Odin sits on a High Seat from which he can see all the Nine Worlds. Two black ravens called Huginn and Muginn tell him all that has happened in the Worlds. Could these be the origins of the Black Jacks or Black Peter who spy on us all throughout the year? Yet another of Odin’s names was Sanngetal (Truth-finder).
The true meaning of Yule
Odin’s real gift is not sweets or other transient blessings, but wisdom. He discovered the Runes, and in some accounts, gave them to mankind. So this Yule, think about sharing the old stories with their wisdom. It may be time to reinvigorate the tradition of leaving a little something out for Odin and Sleipnir, too.
Have a magical Yule!
Ceri is a Priestess of Brighid and perpetual student of the earth’s mysteries. She is a writer of both fiction and non-fiction, and her fourth thriller is out now. Ceri also makes Pagan jewellery and prayer beads for her online shop, Land Sea Sky Treasures.
- Havamal – Poetic EddaÓðins Nöfn (Skáldskaparmál ) – Edda
- Santa Claus, Last of the Wild Men: The Origins and Evolution of Saint Nicholas, Spanning 50,000 Years by Siefker