The Origins Of The Winter Gift Giver
By SpringWolf, D.D., Ph.D.
It twas a blustery night as the snow fell heavily through the wintry barren trees. The land lay quiet, the fields are still from harvest and inside the hearth blazed warm with the burning yule log. But overhead in the storm laden clouds, a clash of hooves and metal thunder in the night. For Odin and his great horse Sleipnir are celebrating the Wild Hunt on this solstice eve with spear in hand and brethren by his side. Their windswept ride is long and filled with madness that shall not end till the twelfth night of Yule. But during their ride, in the fields below, there lies grain of plenty and piles of straw fit for the hordes of Odin’s steeds. His eight legged horse Sleipnir rests upon the ground and feasts on the meal left for the mounts of the Gods. And in return for this gift, Odin the All-Father leaves presents of gold. Quietly he fills the winter boots resting outside the door of the humble homes that lay quiet in the cold winter night.
The 13th Century Poetic Edda is a complication of stories and poems from Scandinavian history. Some of these stories are reportedly told as early 985AD. But these stories have been legend long before these writings were compiled.
The solstice ride of Odin, King of the Norse Gods is one such example. The Winter Solstice has been honored by many folk around the world. It’s 12 days of celebration by the Germanic people can be documented as early as the 4th century AD. Some historians place it even earlier in the 2nd or 1st century BC. In either case, it was prevalent before the Christian invasion.
In this work and from Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda we learn of Odin and his winter ride. On the eve of the winter solstice Odin mounts his eight-legged horse, Sleipnir. Slepnir is born from Loki the shape-shifter, and becomes the greatest horse in the Norse lands. He’s described as grey in some tales and in others he’s as white as the snow.
Along with Odin ride the great Gods of the Norse. Balder, and Tyr sons of Odin, Freyr, Njord, and Thor the great god of the Sky are among the band of brothers who clash through the winter sky during the “Wild Hunt”. They begin their quest on the Winter Solstice and battle the beasts of wild boar, great elk and various other creatures for 12days and nights. The hunt is described as a crazed adventure where the Gods become so embroiled in the fights with mythical monsters or enraged beasts that they themselves go a little mad.
In some Germanic traditions the story of the Wild Hunt has a softer side as the hoard takes time to rest their steeds upon the quiet earth below. Sleipnir in particular is mentioned as feeding on the grain and straw left behind in the harvested fields. Knowing the Gods would be on their hunt, children place their boots near the chimney or outside by the doorway filled with treats for Sleipnir. Odin would reward the children for their kindness with food, candy or gifts. The tradition still continues in Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands. In other Germanic countries the practice has been replaced with hanging stockings that are filled with a variety of presents.
The Norse aren’t the only ones who have a tale of winter battles and rewards of gifts from the Gods or a special magikal gift giver.
On the Celtic side of the world, the Holly and Oak Kings share a battle during the winter solstice as well. The origins of the Holly King are little dubious, but there are links to the Great Kings of Ireland and the legend of the great winter Holly King. Without going too far into the history of Ireland, we can find stories of the hardships and suffering of the early Irish Celts.
Between 8000-7500 BCE the Ice bridge between Scotland and Ireland collapses. About 50,000 to 60,000 hunter gatherers from Scotland are now “trapped” in Ireland. Over the period of a short couple of years, the population dwindles to about 10,000 as animals and food run out and the remaining survivors find a variety of methods to sustain themselves, including the consumption of mildly poisonous Holly berries. Around 6500-5500 BCE the Cuilleain (“Holly” (holy) men step onto the scene. Also known as the “Shining Ones” of Wicklow Hills, these men save the dwindling population from barbarity and are the first priest kings to preach self-wisdom, organized religion for humanity and salvation. Through their efforts to save their people, some of these early Priest Kings sacrifice their lives in battle to ensure the survival of their people. In some legends these sacrifices are physical, in others they are metaphorical. The King gives up his rights to his land to a rival king who agrees to care and sustain the people of the conquered land.
These early priest kings become the inspiration of the “Sacred King who saw the men and women in their suffering. He watched, waited, and thought upon it for a time, and his face grew grave and sad. He spoke to the Lady, and said, “I must die. The land will be fertile and the earth will bring forth a harvest and the people will live and grow”.”
The sacred King is reborn to the Mother Goddess during the winter solstice and is honored for his selfless act that saved his people from starvation in the depths of the winter. Gifts are given to the newly born King who spreads his thanks amongst the people by filling their boots (and later stockings) by the hearth with special candy treats and presents.
In some Celtic regions the Sacred King refers to the reigning king of the year; either the Oak King or the Holly King. During the Summer Solstice the Oak King who reigned the land beneath the warm summer sun, is challenged by his brother the Holly King. As the year is waning the Holly King prevails and begins preparations to save and maintain his people through the cold winter. In order to accomplish his mission, the Holly King travels through the land to hunt, fish and harvest. He gathers his harvest in a great sled that is pulled by eight large and magikal deer. These ‘gifts’ of life are provided to the people of Ireland at the Winter Solstice and a celebration ensues to honor the gifts of the Holly King. The people provide care and comfort to the magikal deer on the first night of the festival. In return, the Holly King leaves gifts and blesses the home with abundance and cheer.
In 795AD the Norse come into the Celtic lands and they bring with them their legends of Odin and his Wild Hunt through the winter sky. Over time these legends merge and develop into the battle between the Holly King and his twin brother the Oak King. Some scholars suggest this battle signifies the battle of the Norse (the north people represented by the Holly) and the Celts (the summer people represented by the great Oak).
The Winter Solstice begins the 12 days of celebration, which takes on the Germanic influenced label of Yule. The Yule tree (always an evergreen) is decorated, but it’s left outside where it can grow and provide for the community. The Holly King is a wise old man, with a beard that keeps him warm in the winter chill. And he of course is decorated in holly berries and leaves that retain their green color in winter, such as holly leaves or green ivy.
But why do both these legends emphasis the number 8? Why the 8 legs of Sleipnir and the 8 deer of the Holly King’s sled, and how do they eventually become 8 reindeer? There are two theories to this.
The Norse are known as the great adventures, traveling far and wide to new lands. As journeymen the 8 directions (N, NE, E, SE, S, SW, W, NW) are very important to the early Norse. Knowing your direction was significantly important when you explored new waters and lands. For the Norse, 8 is also the number of transition. Change is often something that’s hard and associated with death or good and evil. As an example, in America transition is often associated with the number 13 and crows or ravens.
The second is a little more spiritual from the Celtic side. Just follow along here; it comes together in the end. Even in those ancient times the number 9 was an important spiritual number. 9 witches often made up a coven. 9 feet was the diameter of a perfect circle. And maybe that’s why “the whole 9 yards”; which refers to the 9 yards of material for a Great Kilt worn by many Celtic highlanders is so important. When we think of Santa we think of Santa and his 8 tiny reindeer. And most people focus on the 8 reindeer. Well now add Santa. 9 souls traveling through the winter sky to bring presents for the rebirth of the year. It’s a stretch, but there are those who believe this is where the 8 reindeer got their significance in the Celtic lands.
The Oak King who needed the warmth to survive, lived in the warm forests in the south and falls into sleep while his brother of the cold reigns over the world during the fall and winter months. The Holly King lived way up North, where he could survive in the cold during the reign of his brother in the spring and summer. The farther north one goes, the fewer deer are found and the more reindeer. Over time the horses of Odin fall from legend, and the deer give way to their colder brethren the reindeer.
Of course the Norse and Celts aren’t the only early civilizations that recognized the winter solstice. The Romans and Greeks had their observations as well.
The Romans and Greeks
In pagan Rome Saturnus (Saturn) governs the winter months. Saturnalia was an ancient Roman festival that honors the God Saturn. It was originally held on December 17 and later expanded with unofficial festivities through December 23rd or 25th. Various Caesars made their own alterations to the festivals, some making it longer, some making it shorter.
The festival is not described from beginning to end in one single text or source. Modern understanding of this Roman holiday is pieced together from varying accounts, historical documents, architecture and art all combined to give a general account of the observance.
Macrobius, a Latin writer from late antiquity is a major source for the holiday. He cites:
“Saturnalia is a festival of light leading to the winter solstice, with the abundant presence of candles symbolizing the quest for knowledge and truth. The renewal of light and the coming of the new year was celebrated in the later Roman Empire at the Dies Natalis of Sol Invictus, the “Birthday of the Unconquerable Sun,” on December 25.”
In the center square, the people prepare the town for celebration and a public feast. The table is laden with meats, fruits and treats of all types and varieties. This festival is so special that even the slaves are permitted to take part. They share the table and meal with their masters, or in some cases being served by their masters. This practice varied over time, in some instances slaves dined with their masters, in others they were served by their masters. But in any variation of feasting, the servants would still have prepared the food and banquet area.
While the public feast is a major event in the festival, private gift giving also takes place in the home or discretely outside the banquet area. The Romans are known for their exchange of power and favor, and this holiday is no exception.
While the festival is a celebration to honor Saturn, it’s not clear what spiritual significance the deity enjoyed or influenced during this holiday period. The Romans were also a very fluid people. They took in new information and practices from other civilizations they conquered and made them their own. This was especially true with the influences of Greek myth and legend.
The holiday took on major revisions in 217 BC when the Romans suffered a great loss by Carthage during the Second Punic War. The defeating loss at the Battle of Lake Trasimene, caused many changes to Roman rituals and observations as a means to appease the Gods of the Greeks. Saturnalia took on more “Greek rites” in their practices, including the festival sacrifice and public display of excess.
In Greece, the winter solstice signifies the time of the gathering of all the Gods on Mount Olympus. Even Hades is permitted to enter, as this is the only time during the year when he is allowed into the hall of the Gods. The event is marked by a feast and public celebration. But it doesn’t seem to play a major significant role in Greek society. The Greek equivalent to Saturn is Cronus or Kronos who is the patron of the harvest. His festival is earlier in the fall and is known as Kronia.
But the Romans and Greeks share the concept of the winter festival, feasting and gift giving much like the Norse and the Celts.
Practices & Rituals
In many of these early pagan 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 to the person receiving the gift for abundance and fertility in the coming year. Now don’t assume that ‘fertility’ means giving birth to a child. Remember these people had to live off the earth and the crops they grew. They didn’t have grocery stores or the corner market to trot down to and buy food for their families. So in most cases the fertility was for the coming growing season and an abundant herd or flock. This is especially true in the outlying areas of the Germanic and Celtic peoples.
Celtic and Norse rituals were often more practical than celebratory. At the start of the festival a large bonfire is erected. It becomes the centerpiece of the 12 day celebrations. The “sacrifice” is an animal that provides the meal for the feast. Often some form of beef (cow, deer, elk etc) or lamb or pig. Today many Christians continue this feast celebration by serving ham or some form of pot roast for their Christmas dinner.
Vegetables from the garden are also a mainstay to the festival table. They represent the harvest and the abundance afforded to the family or community as a whole. Wine is also a significant addition, not only in the form of grapes, but all fruits that are gathered at the end of the fall harvest. Warm apple cider is a traditional drink throughout the winter months as an example.
During the harvest festivals in September, communities would erect a bonfire whose blaze would be used by individual families to light their own fires at home. Taking the light and warmth from the festival fire was seen as an exchange of energy from the ritual blessing to the home hearth. During the Winter festivals this exercise is repeated to reinvigorate the blessing within the home that has potentially waned from September to December.
Within pagan practices that often honor the Goddess equally or perhaps more than the God, the 12 days of celebration play a significant part to these winter festivals. The first 3 days honor the Goddess in her maiden form as the young girl of innocence and frivolity. The next 3 days honor the Goddess in her form as mother who nurtures the earth and her people. She is often depicted as being with child and ready to give birth to the returning God. The next 3 days honor the birth of the God in the form of the Sun and light bringer. And the final 3 days honor the Goddess in the form of the wise old Crone who shares her wisdom upon the progression of life and death as the winter wanes.
It is the middle 3 days that honor the rebirth of the Sun God that plays the biggest significant part in the winter solstice celebrations for pagans. That’s true for pagans both of the past and in the present day. It is this time period and perspective that links the Sun God to the Winter Gift Giver. It is this time when giving presents to celebrate his rebirth and the return of the warm Sun and transition from winter to spring and summer is practiced.
The Evolution Of Santa:
Santa didn’t become a Christian figure until the 3rd century with Nicholas, the Bishop of Myra. He lived on what is now the coast of Turkey. Nicholas suffered for his faith, was exiled and imprisoned. After his release, Nicholas attended the Council of Nicaea in AD 325 where the official bible of the Church was compiled. He died December 6th, which became a festival day to honor his life. It’s still a day recognized in many European countries as St. Nicholas Day.
Nicholas didn’t have an easy childhood. His parents died in an epidemic while Nicholas was still young. Obeying Jesus’ words to “sell what you own and give the money to the poor,” Nicholas used his whole inheritance to assist the needy, the sick, and the suffering. Many stories are told of his generosity, and caring. HIs protection and care of children from an early age are the most significant tales about his life. Because of his life work with children, he is viewed by Christians as the first “Santa Claus”. Many of the stories retold today about this Saint Nick, cannot be verified and are likely just oral stories that were created to entertain children and to further incorporate pagan legends with Christian figures.
It’s impossible to point to the one real ‘first’ Santa, because Santa is a culmination of mythological legends and stories. But from many of the earliest pagan stories and legends we can find pieces of the Santa legend held in our Celtic and Scandinavian mythologies.
Santa gets his name from Dutch legend in the form of Sinter Klaas or “Sinterklaas”. Historical documents suggest that Sinter was brought by settlers to New York in the 17th century. As early as 1773 the name appeared in the American press as “St. A Claus,” but it was the popular author Washington Irving who gave Americans their first detailed information about the Dutch version of Saint Nicholas. In his History of New York, published in 1809 under the pseudonym Diedrich Knickerbocker, Irving described the arrival of the saint on each Eve of Saint Nicholas Day.
This Dutch-American Saint Nick achieved his fully Americanized form in 1823 in the poem A Visit From Saint Nicholas more commonly known as The Night Before Christmas by writer Clement Clarke Moore. Moore included such details as the names of the reindeer; Santa Claus’s laughs, winks, and nods; and the method by which Saint Nicholas, referred to as an elf, returns up the chimney. (Moore’s phrase “lays his finger aside of his nose” was drawn directly from Irving’s 1809 description.)
There are many Celtic scholars who point Santa’s beginnings to the Celtic Holly King, who has been depicted with a Holly wreath as a crown. Or as the Holly King who wore holly in his hat. In both cases, the Holly King traditionally wore a green garment with red accents. What else would a “holly” king wear?
His clothing seems to have changed color in the late 1800s when Santa started wearing the modern red. The Dutch “Sinterklaas” is an elderly, serious man with white hair and a long, full beard. He wears a long red cape over a traditional white bishop’s alb. Some point to the influence of the Catholic Church and its attire for the different levels of the Priest Hierarchy for this color combination.
In the 1840s, an elf in Nordic folklore called “Tomte” or “Nisse” started to deliver the Christmas presents in Denmark. The Tomte was portrayed as a short, bearded man dressed in gray clothes and a red hat. As migrations of people traveled through Scandinavia their traditional influences also began to merge. By the end of the 19th Century, Norway and Sweden had also begun integrating these images into their winter cultural celebrations. Most notably replacing the Yule Goat, who brought presents with the Dutch influenced Sinterklaas.
British and Dutch versions of the gift-giver merged even more as migrations from Europe came to the Americas. “Santa Claus” by name, was first used in the American press in 1773, but he had lost his bishop’s apparel, and was at first pictured as a thick-bellied Dutch sailor with a pipe in a green winter coat.
The influence of Scandinavian cultures continued as “A New-year’s present, to the little ones from five to twelve” is published in New York in 1821. In this little seasonal book, an anonymous poem “Old Santeclaus” is described as an old man on a reindeer sleigh, bringing presents to children.
Later in 1823, The Sentinel in Troy New York prints “A Visit From St. Nicholas”, better known today as “The Night Before Christmas”. In this poem and story Santa is still a small old elf and the original reindeer were named Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Dunder and Blixem (Dunder and Blixem came from the old Dutch words for thunder and lightning, which were later changed to the more German sounding Donner and Blitzen).
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. This collection included a poem by George Webster “Santa Claus and His Works”, which places Santa’s home near the North Pole in the ice and snow. Images of Santa in red became more popular in the large cities of the east and Midwest, but it still hadn’t caught on throughout the rural countryside or even around the world.
By the 1900s additional images depicting Santa in a red suit sprang up each season furthering the image around the country.
Regional images however still held onto old cultural traditions. This was especially true throughout Europe. It wasn’t until the Coca-Cola Company commissioned Michigan-born illustrator Haddon Sundblom to develop advertising images using Santa Claus in 1930, that his image began its worldwide view as we know it today. Even though Sundblom didn’t invent the image of Santa in a red coat, their advertising strongly helped emphasize this image into rural American and around the world. Like Nast before him, Sundblom made his version a human-sized version of Santa Claus, rather than the elf of Moore’s poem. In modern versions of the Santa Claus legend, only his toy-shop workers are still elves.
Hiding beneath that red or green cloak is a jolly old man, filled with kindness and wisdom. He shares his joy and celebration with children and families everywhere. Whither your pagan or Christian, Santa Clause is the embodiment of peace and love, selfless gift giving and honoring the season of compassion. Does it really matter where he got his start?
- Encyclopædia Britannica, Britanica Encyclopedias; Britanica Publishing, 2001
- The Encyclopedia Of Witches & Witchcraft, Rosemary Ellen Guiley; Facts On File, 1989
- A History of Pagan Europe, Prudence Jones & Nigel Pennick Routledge, 1995
- Key Dates for Ireland, One-Ireland.org
- The Elder Eddas of Saemund Sigfusson; and the Younger Eddas of Snorre Sturleson @ gutenberg.org
- Coke Lore & Santa History @ Coke Lore / Santa
- A Visit From St. Nick by Clement Moore @ gutenberg.org
You can find more about the High Holy Days: The Pagan Sabbats, to discover why they’re observed at sunset and their timing through the year.
Some additional reading you might like to read and share:
You can find a version of this article “Who is Santa Claus – A History” by Springwolf in the Winter issue of Diabolique Magazine, Issue 13. Spring was very excited to be asked to write the cover story for this issue. Order your copy of Diabolique Issue 13 here. Or you can visit their website and download the Diabolique app for your Apple or Android device.
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