The Viking war god Odin is normally portrayed with one eye, bloody hands and his two ravens Huginn and Muninn sitting atop his shoulders. It is said that during the Yule festival, Odin transforms into a tall, gaunt traveler, bedecked in a blue, fur-trimmed coat. He mounts his trusty stead Sleipner, an eight-legged, white horse, and together they fly through the sky, assorted Valkyrie ghosts at their heels like dolphins following a ship. If any adults happen to be out, this terrifying crew chases them back inside. Once the coast is clear, they get about their real task, which is far less frightening. This night is known as Oskoreia, or The Wild Ride.
Before bed on Oskeria, the village children fill their boots with hay and leave them on the hearth. Huginn and Muninn, Odin’s spirit ravens, spend their days flying all over the land, watching to see if Odin’s people are following his directives and reporting back to their master. If a child has a good report, then Odin’s motley crew will swoop down their chimney while they sleep. Slepiner eats the hay and Odin fills the boots with candy and small pieces of jewelry. Where does he get the jewelry? Well, Odin is also lord over Alfheim, that cold, northern climate that is also home to the dwarves and elves.
Sound at all familiar? Ever wondered how some mythical house-burgling cookie addict became such an integral tradition of a mostly Christian holiday? Bethlehem is a great geographical and cultural distance from Scandinavia. But Santa folklore started centuries before Christianity with Odin’s Wild Ride.
Around the 3rd century, as Christianity starts to gain traction, pagan rituals are outlawed. The guys in Rome turn the war god into Saint Nicholas, a tall, gaunt monk who travels the hills delivering presents to well-behaved children and a bundle of sticks to those that need reprimanding. After the Reformation, the Protestants transform Saint Nicholas into Sinter Klaas, a white-bearded dude who owns a flying horse with eight legs and distributes candy to children on December 6, his birthday. Dutch immigrants will later bring Sinter Klaas with them to America and the mythical gift-giver will become Santa Claus. This idea of gift-bringing will spread all over the world, morphing into various iterations of a similar tale. Italy has a kindly witch named La Befana, Russia one named Baboushka. French children hope to be visited by Pere Noel, while Danish children look for Julemanden, or Christmas Man. And in Austria? The good children get toys from Saint Nicholas, while the misbehaving tots are stolen by a terrifying horned monster named Krampus, who ties them in a sack and drowns them in the river! Puts getting a bundle of sticks in perspective, doesn’t it?
Fast forward to the 19th century, when Episcopal minister Clement C. Moore publishes his wildly popular poem “A Visit From Saint Nicholas”. Moore turns the eight-legged horse into eight flying reindeer, the boots by the hearth into hung stockings and the gaunt traveler in blue into a fat man in a red suit. In 1881, political cartoonist Thomas Nast creates the first likeness of the guy we now know as Jolly Ole Saint Nick, giving him a red suit, rotund belly and smile peeking out from underneath a long, white beard. It is at this time that department stores start capitalizing on the season, publishing separate sections for holiday sales and specials. With money to be made, it isn’t long before every department store lures in families with their “live” Santa, creating the perfect sales opportunity. The child sits on Santa’s lap and tells him their Christmas wish, then Santa’s “elves” helpfully tell Mom and Dad in which department that gift can be purchased.
In the 1930’s, Coca-Cola updates Santa’s image further, making him wholesome, friendly and approachable (and obese, which is ironic since drinking soda is correlated with morbid obesity). These now-famous Coke ads feature a jolly man raiding fridges, hugging children and petting dogs, all while enjoying the refreshing taste of his favorite beverage. During this decade, Americans will set out, not milk and cookies, but Coke and cookies for Father Christmas. These Saturday Evening Post ads are iconic. One showed Santa without a wedding ring and the Coke company was inundated with millions of letters asking what happened to Mrs. Claus! That is a successful marketing campaign!
So let’s raise a toast to the history of Santa Claus! Or, if you’re feeling a bit more Nordic, you can drink your mead from the skull of your enemies, Odin-style. Both are acceptable at Yule.