Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Is there a Santa Claus?

I was trying to space these to one a week, but I have some drawing to do for what I wanted to post today. You'll get that one tomorrow.


Generally when you see someone talking about the origins of Santa Clause you read about the Christian development. There's the sainted Bishop Nicholas, an orphan from the 4th century who paid the dowries of some girls so they wouldn't have to become prostitutes and who tossed gifts in the windows of poor children.

The Dutch also had Sinter Klaus who rode a white horse to deliver gifts.

On a rare occasion you'll hear mention of Santa's Norse frost giant past. This is related to the fact that Sinter Klaus was also a Norse name for Thor.

Thor was the god of the peasants. He was depicted as round, jolly, and elderly with a long white beard. He wore lots of red and his element was fire. Each fireplace was a sort of temple to him. He rode a chariot drawn by two white goats named Cracker and Gnasher. He lived in the north among the icebergs. He would come to the houses of the poor during the Yule season through the fires in their fireplaces and bring gifts.

We all know about Thor's hammer. The hammer was a weapon but as the tool of a carpenter it's also a symbol of creation. Like Santa, Thor had an army of elven helpers who were also skilled craftsmen. They're the ones who made Thor's hammer.

Thor's father may also have been drawn upon for the Santa myth. Odin rode an 8 legged horse named Sleipnir. That might have translated into something a bit less freaky. Some like 8 tiny reindeer. Odin lived in Valhalla (which translates as the North) and rode around during the winter solstice bringing gifts to the good children and punishing the bad.

In Sweden today Thor represents Santa Claus.

As paganism and Christianity collided Thor and Christ did, too. I can't find any specific tales but there are several references to their conflict. Much like how the Greek god Lucifer (a.k.a. Morningstar, a.k.a. the planet Venus) survives as a fallen angel (but not Satan) that Thor may have fallen to the role of Satan himself.

Let me try that from another direction. European versions of St. Nick are often accompanied by a demonic figure. You'll often hear about the Krampus1 who accompanies the saint. While St Nick brings gifts to good children the Krampus remains chained at his side and under the control of the Christian figure. The demonic figure, whatever his name, variably whips, eats, or enslaves bad children. One of the names of this figure is Black Peter which is another name for Satan. Sometimes Satan is said to use the name Robin Goodfellow and laugh "Ho, Ho, Ho." Satan also uses the name Nick, as in St. Nick, so take all this stuff about names as you will.

The point being, that as Thor lost the culture war he seems to have been relegated to the monster servant role while the gift bringer role was usurped by a saint. Many pictures of St. Nick show him wearing a crown of holly. It's suspected that the crown of thorns worn put on Jesus' head at the crucifixion was a prickly holly wreath instead of the thorny vines of unknown species that are often shown.

I'm not expecting to convince anyone of anything. I think that the American Santa is based more on Thor than on the 4th century bishop. Not that it really matters. If you'll permit me to switch to a different category of geek for a moment I want to quote Worf from "Star Trek: Deep Space 9". He overheard the Doctor and the Chief Engineer fighting about the Alamo and how Davy Crockett died.

You are both wrong. The only real question is whether you believe in the legend of Davy Crockett or not. If you do, then there should be no doubt in your mind that he died a hero's death. If you do not believe in the legend, then he was just a man, and it does not matter how he died.

Similarly, it doesn't matter where the Santa mythology originated. What matters is the legend. What matters is what he's been made into. What he's been made into is the Santa I believe in.

After all of the parallels I mentioned before I also want to note that Jesus was a bearded carpenter who rode a donkey and that Buddha is a pretty jolly fat man, too. Mythologies interbreed a lot.

Before you go. Enjoy this Krampus puppet.

1 Knecht Rupprecht; Pelznickle; Ru-Klas; Swarthy; Dark One; Dark Helper; Black Peter; Hans Trapp; Krampus; Grampus; Zwarte Piets; Furry Nicholas; Rough Nicholas; Schimmelreiter; Klapperbock; Julebuk; etc.

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