’Tis the season to be jolly, but is the mythical figure of Santa more than meets the eye? The Santa Claus of today is a rosy-cheeked, portly, elderly man donning a red onesie with white trim and a delightful red winter cap–a stark contrast to his alleged inspiration Saint Nicholas. So who is Santa, really? Where did he come from, and why has he prevailed in the public consciousness as successfully as he has?
The historical origins of Santa Claus reside with a figure known as Saint Nicholas. Saint Nicholas was a Greek bishop in the early 4th Century whose many accomplishments, including protecting children, led to his canonization. A great deal of folklore and legend emerged from his numerous deeds, many of which offer tales of his verdant efforts to protect children from harm. He quickly became known as the protector of children and sailors, the former being the main source of inspiration for the modern Saint Nick. All across Christendom, Saint Nicholas’ reputation spread and his birthday, December 9, became a day of good luck. His association with Christmas has remained fairly consistent through the centuries, but his name has changed over time. Santa Claus is a North American corruption of the Dutch name SinterKlaas which was imported to the Americas in the mid 18th Century when New York was still New Amsterdam. Ever since, the holiday season has prominently featured the saint in his Dutch incarnation.
From Tan Mediterranean Man to Pale, White-Haired Pole-Dweller
One of the great mysteries of the holiday season is how Saint Nick transformed from a skinny, dark-skinned mediterranean man to a fat, elderly white man. The traditions surrounding Saint Nick were likely well established by the time Christendom began its great expansion into Northern Europe, led substantially by the 8th Century ruler Charlemagne. Over the course of the 9th, 10th, and 11th Centuries, Christianity spread across all the Scandinavian countries and even further East up to the borders of modern day Russia. This expansion was not universally well received, and pagan rituals continued well into the medieval period in isolated areas. It is theorized that the pagan tradition of Yule, which coincided with the celebration of Saint Nick, may have led to an assimilation of sorts of both traditions into one.
Odin, Yule, and the Last Breath of Germanic Paganism
Prior to their Christianization, Northern Europeans celebrated a holiday around the same time the Christians celebrated Saint Nick. Yule was a midwinter festival theorized to have had an association with a variety of other pagan traditions, including heightened paranormal activity and an increase of Draugrs (the walking dead). To decorate for this three-day occasion, they brought in evergreens which symbolized the continuity of life through winter. Odin figured prominently in the Yule tradition. It was said that he wore a blue-hooded cloak and rode his eight-legged horse Sleipnir through the sky at night and stopped place to place to deliver gifts. The exact significance of Yule in Germanic paganism, as well as the exact rituals practiced during the celebration, remain relatively ambiguous in the historical record. Despite this, historians and enthusiasts alike have postulated a strong connection between Odin’s role in Yule and the role Santa would come to play in Western culture later on.
An Opportunistic Odin?
It is possible, but of course not certain, that Pagans may have seen similarities between Saint Nick and their own Odin (or Woden, or whichever name a particular pagan may have known him by), and may have transposed many of Odin’s characteristics onto the saint. After all, both were associated with a specific time of year, a specific holy day, and both were associated with some form of giving gifts. This could explain why the variations of Santa across Europe depict him as a magical, wandering, white-bearded man of varying powers. In a way, as Norse and Germanic Paganism saw its twilight, the god Odin found an opportunity to live on in some form through the figure of Saint Nicholas. His metamorphosis may not have been discouraged either: the Christian church was keenly aware of the advantages of molding their faith to their audience to encourage conversions.
So, is Santa Odin?
Ultimately, there is no solid evidence to definitively link the two, we only have lofty inferences based on scattered bits of information. It is up to each person to believe what they want to believe about Santa. More importantly, it is up to each person to decide on what Santa means to them during the holiday season. Personally, I like to think that today’s Santa is the latest incarnation of Odin who, over the course of many sagas, metamorphosed numerous times. It would not be a stretch of the imagination for a Viking to believe that Santa is merely his latest disguise.