Santa's Pagan Origins / by Chris Hall

Odin with his two ravens, Thought and Memory.

Odin with his two ravens, Thought and Memory.

Our present day Santa Claus (an American invention) as well as some of his European contemporaries (Father Christmas, Sinterklaas, etc) is an amalgamation of the Christian St. Nicholas and a variety of pagan mythological sources.  In honor of Christmas, I’ve decided to research and write about some of Santa’s pagan antecedents.  Here you will read about the Germanic god Odin, the Yule Goat, the Tomte and Nisse spirits, the Sabine/Roman goddess Strenia, and the giant ogress Gryla and her sons the Yule Lads.  Merry Christmas!

Odin

The name Odin is derived from the Old Norse, meaning “the furious one,” Odin is the king of the gods in the Germanic pantheon and ruler of Asgard.  Odin is associated with war, victory, and death, but also represents wisdom, Shamanism, magic, poetry, prophecy, and the hunt.  Like Mercury in the Roman pantheon, Odin is a Psychopomp, or a guider of souls from one realm to the next.  Like most pagan deities, Odin is ambivalent towards the fate and fortunes of mankind; he is the bringer of poetry as well war.  

Odin rides on a flying horse with eight legs named Sleipner, and is accompanied by two talking ravens, Huginn and Muninn or “Thought” and “Memory.”  Odin’s ravens fly away from him during the day and report the news of all they have seen of the world back to him during the evening.  Having spirit animals, particularly ravens, his relation to poetry and inspiration, as well as his role as a Psychopomp, connects Odin firmly within the realm of Shamanism.  

Odin has one eye in his head, as he sacrificed an eye by dropping it in Mimir’s magic well in order gain wisdom.  Odin prepares a sacrifice to himself by hanging himself from the World Tree for nine day and having himself pierced by his sword, also in order to gain wisdom.  Germanic mythology promotes the notion, then, that with suffering comes great wisdom.

As a Psychopomp, Odin receives the souls of the valiant dead into the Halls of Valhalla.  Only through a heroic death can a soul achieve immortality.  All other souls perish.  Odin saves the souls of the valiant so they can assist the gods during the final battle during Ragnarok. 

Odin carries a magic spear named Gungnir which never misses its target, a magic gold ring which multiplies into nine new rings each day, and the severed head of Mimir which foretells the future.  

The Wild Hunt by Johann Wilhelm Cordes, 1857

Odin is the leader of the Wild Hunt, leading a host of slain warriors and Valkyries in furious and violent pursuit across the sky.  Seeing the Wild Hunt is considered to be a bad omen, foretelling future disaster or war.  Odin’s Wild Hunt takes place around the same time as the Germanic Yule festival, in midwinter.  Wars would often start when the frost thaws in spring.  In the meantime, Odin would make up for it with the Yule festival.  Like Santa Claus, Odin would sometimes climb down the chimney and leave gifts for people.

Odin is killed (or is to be killed) by the wolf Fenrir during “Ragnarok,” which is the “Twillight of the gods” and the world apocalypse.  

After Christianity was introduced, Saint Nicholas rode on the back of the Yule Goat.  Previously, the Yule Goat was a Goat-Man who gave gifts during the Winter Solstice.

Yule Goat

In many Scandinavian countries, the midwinter gift giver was a man dressed as a goat, a Yule Goat.  A popular theory as to why the goat was chosen as a gift giver is that Odin’s son, Thor, rode around the sky in a chariot driven by his two flying goats, Tanngrisnir and Tanngnjóstr.  Then Christianity came, and the Yule Goat took a back seat to Saint Nicholas.  Before Santa Claus had his famous reindeer, Saint Nicholas would often keep the company of Yule Goats, sometimes riding them, suggesting his dominance over the devil.  In the Scandinavian wassailing tradition, often times people would dress in holiday costumes.  A rowdy Yule Goat demanding gifts was often included in the mix.  In Sweden the Yule Goat was an invisible spirit that showed up before Christmas to make sure that the Yule preparations were done properly.  The Yule Goat, in straw effigy form, was often the center of a prank where people would the Yule Goat in a neighbor’s house without their knowledge; the neighbor successfully pranked had to rid themselves of the Yule Goat in the same way.  

For a short time beginning in the 19th Century the Yule Goat returned to role of being the gift giver with people once again dressing as goats to distribute gifts.  Once again, the Yule Goat was eventually replaced by the end of the century, but not with Saint Nicholas.  The Yule Goat was instead replaced with the more secular Father Christmas, aka Santa Claus.  Today there is once again a Yule Goat revival, particularly in Finland.  The Yule Goat often takes the form of small Christmas ornaments, but sometimes as a giant straw or stick effigy erected in cities and towns.  Often times these giant Yule Goat effigies are the victims of arson.  Meanwhile, in Finland, many people are once again returning to dressing up in Yule Goat costumes.  

Tomte's Barn Dance by Jan Bergerlind

Tomte and Nisse

They are called Tomte in Sweden and Nisse in Norway and Denmark.  Tomte and Nisse are little miniature versions of Santa Claus.  They are fairies or gnomes who give gifts to people during the winter solstice.  Tomte and Nisse are small creatures ranging from a few inches but slightly under three feet tall. Like Santa Claus, they have long white beards and wear bright red robes.  Sometimes they are depicted as having a single, cyclopean eye.  Sometimes they are also thought to be shape-shifters, able to take on any appearance they choose.  The Yule Goat and the Tomte coexisted, with the Tomte gaining more acceptance with the introduction of Christianity.  However, it should be noted, that while the Tomte seem more benevolent in surface appearance, the Tomte could actually be quite cruel and dangerous.  If treated well, the Tomte and Nisse  would help out with the chores, but if not respected, they would play tricks, start to steal things, and might even maim or kill your livestock.  It should be noted that the bite of a Tomte or Nisse is considered to be poisonous.  The Tomte and Nisse would leave gifts at the doors of people during the midwinter solstice.  In gratitude, and to prevent their potentially lethal pranks, it was a tradition to leave a bowl of porridge with butter out for their kind gesture.  With the introduction of Christianity, the Tomte and Nisse were demonized.  A farmer jealous of his neighbor’s success might accuse him of using a Tomte or Nisse in order to bring about the wrath of the community.  Beginning in the mid 1800’s there was a revival of interest in Tomte and Nisse as the deliverer of Christmas gifts.  It has become quite a confusing affair as the Tomte and Nisse are either in competition or conflated with both the Yule Goat and the American version of Santa Claus.

The Roman goddess Strenia.

Strenia

In ancient Roman religion, Strenia was a goddess of the New Year, purification, and wellbeing.  Strenia has her origin not in the Greek pantheon, but was adopted from their enemies, the Sabines outside of Rome.  The original Romans are thought to be refugees from Troy after their loss during the Trojan War.  Troy is in modern Turkey, near Greece, so they worshiped Greek gods and goddesses.  Adopting Strenia, a goddess of the Sabines, a people native to Italy whom they would conquer, is unusual.  On January 1, twigs from Strenia's grove were carried in a procession to the citadel in Rome.  In return for maintaining her cult, Strenia would bestow good fortune.  New Years gifts called strenae would also be exchanged between people.  St. Augustine writes that Strenia was the goddess who made people “strenuus”, or strong.  The gift giving cult of Strenia survives in Italy today in Befana, the “Christmas Witch.”

On the Winter Solstice, Gryla would leave her cave and look for children to eat.

On the Winter Solstice, Gryla would leave her cave and look for children to eat.

Gryla and the Yule Lads

Once upon a time in Iceland there was a giant troll who lived in a cave in the mountains named Gryla.  Once a year around the winter solstice she would leave her cave in search of her favorite prey, naughty children, who she would boil in a hot stew.  She had three husbands, none of whom could compete with her malice and wickedness.  Some say Gryla is dead, while others have her living in a cave in the Dimmuborgir lava fields.  Gryla had many children, including the famous 13 Yule Lads.  By the 17th century the Yule Lads continued in Gryla’s tradition of Christmas violence, each Yule Lad’s behavior ranging from mere pranks to homicidal monsters who eat children.  One by one they leave their cave in the mountains and appear on one of the 13 days before Christmas to scare children who have been naughty.  Sometimes they are accompanied by a giant Yule Cat who attacks and eats the children who do not receive new clothes for Christmas.  

Unlike many other European countries, Icelandic culture remained more resistant to the introduction of Christianity.  Gryla and her offspring never really went underground or were suppressed until 1746.  The stories of Gryla and the 13 Yule Lads had become so terrifying that there was a decree prohibiting their re-telling to children with the intent to frighten.  

During the 19th century, the Yule Lads and even their hideous mother, Gryla, underwent a gradual rehabilitation.  They no longer were the child snatchers and cannibals of folklore, but had become mere thieving tricksters, who, nevertheless, are out to punish bad children on the 13 days before Christmas.  Each Yule Lad was given a name, identifying their specific mischievous character.  They arrive and depart on specific days:  

December 12th.  Stekkjastaur (Sheepfold-stick).  He harasses sheep but is impaired by his stiff peg legs.  Departs December 25th.

December 13th.  Giljagaur (Gulley-gawk).  He hides in gullies waiting for the chance to sneak into a barn and steal milk.  Departs December 26th.

December 14th.  Stúfur (Shorty).  Abnormally short, he steals pans in order to eat the crusts left behind.  Departs December 27th.

December 15th.  Thvörusleikir (Spoon-licker).  He steals wooden spoons with long handles.  He is thin and malnourished.  Departs December 28th.

December 16th.  Pottasleikir (Pot-scraper).  He steals left-over food from pots.  Departs December 29th.

December 17th.  Askasleikir (Bowl-licker).  He hides under beds waiting for people to put down their “askur” which a type of bowl with a lid.  He then steals them.  Departs December 30th.

 December 18th.  Hurdaskellir (Door-slammer).  He likes to slam doors, especially during the night.  Departs December 31st.

December 19th.  Skyrgámur (Skyr-gobbler).  This Yule Lad has a craving for skyr, a kind of Icelandic yogurt.  Departs January 1st.

December 20th.  Bjúgnakrækir (Sausage-swiper).  He hides in the rafters and steals sausages that are being smoked.  Departs January 2nd.

December 21st.  Gluggagægir (Peeping-Tom).  He looks into windows in search of . . . something to steal.  Departs January 3rd.

December 22nd.  Gáttathefur (Doorway Sniffer).  He has a large nose which he uses to locate Christmas bread, so he can steal it.  Departs January 4th.

December 23rd.  Kjötkrókur (Meat-hook).  He uses a hook to steal meat.  Departs January 5th.

December 24th.  Kertasníkir (Candle-stealer).  He follows children in order to steal their candles, which were once edible as they were made of tallow.  Departs January 6th.

By the early 20th century the Yule Lads have become basically reformed and have taken on a more benevolent gift giving role comparable to Santa Claus.  They now place gifts in the shoes of good Icelandic children, but occasionally will place rotten potatoes in the shoes of bad children.  Likewise, they are occasionally depicted as wearing late medieval style Icelandic clothing, but are otherwise generally shown wearing the red robe costume traditionally worn by Santa Claus.