The appearance of Father Christmas dates back at least as far as the 17th century in Britain,
pictures of him from that era portray him as a jolly, bearded man dressed in a long, green cloak.
He typified the spirit of good cheer at Christmas, as the “Ghost of Christmas Present“, in Charles Dickens A Christmas Carol, where he takes a miserly Scrooge on an emotionally re-energizing expedition through London on Christmas morning, his goodwill overflowing all around.
In 1931 however, the Coca Cola company redressed this classic figure with the Red Robes of Santa Claus,
co-opting him in promotional service of their product.
Subsequently in his examinations of cultural iconography, the renowned anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss wrote in his analysis of Father Christmas:
“Father Christmas is dressed in scarlet: he is a king. His white beard, his furs and his boots, the sleigh in which he travels evoke winter. He is called “Father” and he is an old man, thus he incarnates the benevolent form of the authority of the ancients.”
Thus we see the Father Christmas tradition although diverted to secular ends, still embodies deeper cultural values…..
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Whilst Father Christmas has become the most beloved of Christmas symbols and traditions,
his origins are not clear….
On Father Christmas’ ‘Christian’ Origins;
The Catholic Saint Nicholas Myra is one of the key inspirations for ‘Santa Claus’.
He was a 4thC Greek Christian bishop of Myra, Byzantine in Turkey, famous for his generous gifts to the poor.
His cult spread quickly and he became the patron saint of many groups, including judges, criminals, merchants, sailors, travelers, the poor, & children.
According to St. Nicholas historian, Charles W. Jones,
“. . . the cult of St. Nicholas was, before the Reformation, the most intensive of any nonbiblical saint in Christendom. . . there were 2,137 ecclesiastical dedications [churches] to Nicholas in France, Germany, and the Low Countries alone before the year 1500.”
(Jones, Charles. W. “Knickerbocker Santa Claus.” The New-York Historical Society Quarterly, October 1954, Volume XXXVIII Number Four, p.357)
Saint Nicholas is also the most revered saint in Russia, the Russian Orthodox Church’ christianized replacement of the native people’s local Shaman….
In The Netherlands and Belgium, Saint Nicolas is aided by helpers commonly known as Zwarte Piet (Black Peter) in Dutch or “Père Fouettard” in French, or in Switzerland, the Krampus, a scary demon who would just as easily take people away to punish them with a birch stick beating, as give a gift to reward their good year.
The European Father Christmas became more world widespread In 1626 when a ship with settlers from the Netherlands arrived in America bearing these traditions of the Dutch “Sinter Claes,” or Saint Nickolas the patron saint of sailors, and their custom of celebrating the Winter Solstice….
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Whilst Father Christmas has become a secular representation of Christmas, a number of primarily Protestant fundamentalist Christian churches object to the materialist focus that his gift giving brings to this holiday.
This condemnation of Christmas originated with some 16th C Protestant groups, and was prevalent among the Puritans of 17th C England & America who banned the holiday as either Pagan (which means ‘of nature’) or Roman Catholic.
Christmas was made legal again with the Restoration of 1660, despite Puritan opposition in New England USA which persisted for almost two centuries….
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But Who Is Father Christmas Really?….
Whilst most religious historians agree that St Nicholas as Santa Claus did not actually exist as a real person,
during the Christianization of Northern Europe local traditions were incorporated into the new Christian holidays to make them more acceptable to the new converts, & thus Santa Claus was created, a Christianized version of earlier Pagan gods.
In support of this view, nearly all Santa researchers agree that many aspects of Santa derive from The Norse mythology.
Mythologist Helene Adeline Guerber suggests the Northern traditions indicate Santa as the Norse god Thor;
Thor was the god of the peasants and the common people, represented as an elderly man, jovial and friendly, with a long white beard. His element was the fire, his color red.
The rumble and roar of thunder were said to be caused by the rolling of his chariot …drawn by two white goats (called Cracker and Gnasher).
He was fighting the giants of ice and snow, and thus became the Yule-god.
He was said to live in the “Northland” where he had his palace among icebergs.
By our pagan forefathers he was considered as the cheerful and friendly god…
The fireplace in every home was especially sacred to him, and he was said to come down through the chimney into his element, the fire.
(Guerber, H.A. Myths of Northern Lands. New York: American Book Company, 1895, p. 61)
It is also worth mentioning that Thor’s helpers were elves and like Santa’s elves, Thor’s elves were skilled craftsman.
It was the elves who created Thor’s magic hammer.
Two books from Iceland, the Poetic Edda, compiled in the 13th century from earlier sources,
and the Prose Edda, written in the 13th C,
describe Odin as riding an eight-legged horse named Sleipnir (Santa originally had eight reindeers, Rudolph was nine) that could leap great distances, giving rise to comparisons to Santa Claus’s reindeer.
Tradition has it that Odin led the souls of the dead on a furious cross-country ride during the twelve ‘bad’ days between Christmas and Epiphany (January 6).
The resulting gale carried along the seeds of the produce of the fields, stimulating fertility.
The apples, nuts, and other autumn produce given around St. Nicholas Day were symbols of fertility and by giving the Gods these symbolic presents during the cold, dark winter days would result in increased fertility for man, animal, and soil.
Odin was also accompanied by his servant, Eckhard, the forerunner of Black Peter, who carried a rod.
As recently as the Middle Ages, it was the popular belief that certain trees and plants could render humans fertile and that merely striking a woman with a branch of such a tree could make her pregnant.
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Of Santa’s Shamanic Sources…
Religious historians & astrologists appear to have combined forces to consider the matter of Father Christmas incredible voyage outside of time…
Santa’s magical journey on his sleigh around the whole planet in a single night, is apparently developed from the ‘heavenly chariot’ used by many Gods from whom Santa and other shamanic figures are descended.
The chariot of Odin, Thor and even the Egyptian god Osiris is now known as the star constellation the Big Dipper, which circles around the North Star in a 24-hour period… thus the flight of the stars portrayed the flight of the God(s), and in turn of Santa Claus.
The Shamanic Flight of the Mushroom….
The Shaman, who was the highly regarded healer, seer, herbalist and counselor of his people, employed trance like states induced by repetitive drumming, and plants with psychotropic qualities to further their altered perceptions of reality beyond the physical constraints of normal reality in the earth plane.
These vision quests were serious undertakings embarked on with ritual and purpose to discover the causes of illness, or to reveal the best courses of action for the community to pursue over any given matter, and often involved communing with deceased, and Otherworldy Spirits or Gods.
Specifically the Northern Shamen are reputed to have eaten Amanita Mushrooms, more commonly known as Fly Agaric, the Red/White spotted poisonous Magical Mushroom of many fairy-stories and folk legends.
Entering into Mushroom induced trance and riding the regular beat of their drum, these Shamen ‘climbed’ up the world tree to commune with the spirits & return with gifts , not toys, but messages for individuals and the tribe, concerning the year to come, their hunts and harvests, the fate of their world.
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Of Father Christmas Elven Affiliations…
St. Nicholas is not only assisted by elves, but is possibly an Elf himself if an authors license is to be believed…
In the Famous Poem written by Clement Clark Moore, ‘The Night Before Christmas’ – The author calls Santa a ‘ Jolly Old Elf’.
Yet, Clark Moore’s theory is supported by later academic research into the Nordic Mythologies..
“… Saint Nicholas was an absorbed pagan deity. Our modern version of this personage is an amalagation of many old personifications of a very old elf. Yes, elf. In ancient times, it was believed that an elf came and delivered gifts to those who left him porridge. Indeed, the popular figure of Santa Claus actually owes more to the god Odin than he does the Christian saint called Nicholas. He dresses in red, a colour symbolic of the Teutonic Alfs, or elves. He has one eye with which he can give knowledge with a single wink. He has a long white beard and hails from the ancient lands of the frozen north…”
(Santa Claus, the Yule Elf, and Odi by Kimberly Moore)
Elven or otherwise, the mysterious nature of Father Christmas draws on many sources but resonates with a timeless quality outside of them all.
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On The Meaning Of It All…..
Some psychologists suggest ‘Cognitive Dissonance’ which occurs when children are encouraged to believe in the existence of Santa Claus, only to have their parents reveal the ‘lie’ when they are older….
Yet such parents, perhaps victims of church led re-assignations of cultural meanings, are mistaken, as much psychological and spiritual truth does reside in these deep rooted mytho-historic traditions.
By better understanding such Nature-Al truths, we may better understand our modern world, and its relationship to the greater panorama of Nature’s endless cycles and within that our own bright season of life.
The true spirit of Father Christmas then, lies not in the fraught or hopeful exchange of gifts or toys,
but in celebrating our gifts from Divine Nature:The gifts, of perception and awareness, that allow us to witness the beauty of this life and its many wonders, of seeing the solstice sun, or hearing joy in the voices of our children and friends, of love…..
So when the jolly Shaman gifts you with his blessings this year,
remember that the Nature which expresses itself in endless galaxies of light and wonder, also celebrates its existence through you, that is his real gift…..
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A Visit From St. Nicholas/’Twas the Night Before Christmas
‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;
The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads;
And mamma in her ‘kerchief, and I in my cap,
Had just settled down for a long winter’s nap,
When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from the bed to see what was the matter.
Away to the window I flew like a flash,
Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash.
The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow
Gave the lustre of mid-day to objects below,
When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny reindeer,
With a little old driver, so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment it must be St. Nick.
More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name;
“Now, Dasher! now, Dancer! now, Prancer and Vixen!
On, Comet! on Cupid! on, Donder and Blitzen!
To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!
Now dash away! dash away! dash away all!”
As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky,
So up to the house-top the coursers they flew,
With the sleigh full of toys, and St. Nicholas too.
And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the roof
The prancing and pawing of each little hoof.
As I drew in my hand, and was turning around,
Down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound.
He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot;
A bundle of toys he had flung on his back,
And he looked like a peddler just opening his pack.
His eyes — how they twinkled! his dimples how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow;
The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath;
He had a broad face and a little round belly,
That shook, when he laughed like a bowlful of jelly.
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself;
A wink of his eye and a twist of his head,
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread;
He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,
And filled all the stockings; then turned with a jerk,
And laying his finger aside of his nose,
And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose;
He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew like the down of a thistle.
But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight,
“Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night.”
(by Clement Clarke Moore)