By Emma Kathan
The origins of the Santa Claus legend are varied, but the most commonly recognized source is Saint Nicholas, a Fourth Century Greek bishop who was later canonized by the Catholic Church. He performed miracles including raising the dead and multiplying food where it was scarce. He was a selfless man who gave his wealth to the poor: he put coins in children’s shoes when they left them outside the house at night, and he often threw small bags of gold through open windows and down chimneys.
In one reported instance his charity saved a family that was so destitute they considered selling their daughters into prostitution; as the story goes one of the girls whom he saved had just washed her stockings and set them to dry over the dying embers of a fire in the hearth when a bag of gold came down the chimney and landed in her stocking. In these stories we see the similarity with the modern Santa Claus who brings gifts to deserving children, and even the origin of the chimney as a port of entry and the stockings as containers for his gifts. His day of celebration is December 6; in some European countries, children still receive their gifts on this day. The Northern European Sinterklass also derives from Saint Nicholas.
Santa Claus also has his counterpart in the Norse god Odin. In Norse mythology Odin was the Father of the Gods while Frigg, Odin’s wife, was the Mother of the Gods. Odin was the god of war and victory in battle, as well as the god of magic and poetry. He was a shaman, able to transcend this world to receive information from other planes and bring back knowledge of the universe to humans. He is typically depicted as a white wizard character, a tall man with a long white beard, wearing a long cloak, and carrying a staff. He rode through the skies on his eight-legged white horse Sleipnir, which is usually seen as the origin of Santa and his flying sleigh with eight reindeer.
Yuletide was a Winter Solstice festival honoring the divine mother goddess; it was also known as Modraniht or Mother’s night and connected to Odin’s Wild Hunt. Odin trained men and women to become soldiers against darkness; the soldiers painted their bodies black and attacked their enemies under the cloak of night. Odin and his soldiers often fought in a trance, which some historians attribute to their consuming mind-altering drugs and working themselves up into a mad frenzy before battle. They were called Berserkers, origin of the word berserk, and some tales tell of their shapeshifting into invincible creatures on the battlefield, impervious to swords and fire.
The Wild Hunt started on October 31 and lasted until April 30 peaking at the Winter Solstice, December 22 through 25; it was a hunting party led through the skies by Odin and Frigg commanding dead souls on horseback in a chase to capture supernatural beings. According to the legend, if you saw the chase you must cover your head or look away and never try to interrupt it, or you might be taken by the hunters into the underworld. The people kept fires burning to light up the night to keep these spirits of darkness away during the longest night of the year, hence the Yule log.
Santa Claus is usually depicted as an older Northern European white man, with a long white beard and wearing a bright red and white suit or cloak. One of the most interesting theories supporting his wearing of red and white comes from the shamans of the tribal people of Northern Europe especially the Lapps of Finland and the nomadic tribal people in Siberia, Northern Russia, and Mongolia. These peoples depend on and revere the reindeer much as Native Americans did the buffalo. In Winter the shamans follow reindeer to the base of trees where they dig through the ice with their hooves and eat wild amanita muscaria mushrooms, just as wild boars search out and dig for truffles.
The amanita muscaria are hallucinogenic mushrooms known for their vibrant red and white patterns. The shamans who gather these mushrooms, in a state of sympathetic magic, dress as the mushroom wearing red and white in homage to its transcendental and healing properties. When the shamans first observed the reindeer after the animals has consumed the mushrooms, they noticed their erratic behavior, but saw that they were all right and not poisoned; the mushrooms were something they purposely sought. The reindeer were hallucinating, “flying” or “tripping.” Certain people are able to eat the amanita mushrooms with no problem while others feel physically sick and vomit.
Something about the reindeer’s bodies allows them to synthesize the toxicity of the mushrooms without harm and just allows them to “trip,” much as our bodies react to psilocybin mushrooms without toxicity. As the mushrooms harmlessly pass through the reindeer’s body, the poisons are neutralized by their digestion; and so the shamans took to drinking the reindeer urine. In this way, many people were able to have the healing and hallucinogenic effects of the mushrooms without sickness. In fact the chemicals of the mushroom stay present even after several urinations, so often the shaman or people taking them continue to drink their own urine to keep the effects in their body for a longer period of time.
In Northern Europe and Asia, tribal villagers typically lived (many still live) in yurts, large round sort of tee-pee structures with a big hole in the center of the roof/room, which acted as a chimney, but which also had a ladder so that people could go in and out of the yurt when snow built up around the sides blocking the doors. Yurts have been used in this way for at least 3,000 years. Around the time of the Winter Solstice, the shamans would visit different yurts in their villages, sometimes using the ladder to “come down the chimney” with a sack containing amanita mushrooms and other herbs for healing during the winter months. The amanita mushroom was not only used for psychedelic/transcendental purposes but also as an antibiotic and warming agent.
Amanita Muscaria Mushroom
These ceremonies were meant to bring a healing, transcendental experience to people on the year’s longest night—a magical ceremony hosted by a magical man (or woman). These histories and legends connect at the Winter Solstice and provide precursors to the magic man, Santa Claus, that most Northern Americans grew up with.