Monday, 22 December 2014

Santa's Magic Sleighride

Ho! Ho! Ho! And let me wish you all a very Merry Christmas!

Father Christmas, Saint Nicklaus, Santa Claus. The image is the same: a rotund bearded and jolly fellow from the far north dressed in scarlet. We learn of his mythos as soon as we are born; as children we write him letters assuring him of our good behaviour and how we deserve the gifts we have asked from him. At Christmas we celebrate the birth of Jesus, but the imagery of winter and of Santa calls upon something else, something ancient and decidedly pagan. The reason is that Father Christmas and Christian Saint Nicklaus are two separate entities.

Christianity became a politically expedient creed for European kingdoms to adopt. To become popular with people it had to acquire the mantles of the old beliefs. What better way than to take possession of the pre-Christian festivals? The winter festival was probably the most important to agrarian societies; it is the bleakest time of short days and long, ice cold nights. What better festival to use that this, the one promising hope that the Winter Solstice has been reached and that longer days of sun are approaching? Hence we celebrate Christmas on 25th December but that doesn't explain this Father Christmas character.

In Old English mythology Father Christmas, the bearded figure, is almost akin to the father of the gods, Woden. Dickens recalled him as the Ghost of Christmas Present in A Christmas Carol.  Father Christmas was the symbol of good cheer. Shortly after Christmas was reinstated as a holy day in restoration England, he featured in Josiah King’s The Examination and Tryal of Father Christmas in 1689. Joyless post-Civil War government had labelled Christmas as “Catholic superstition and godless self-indulgence.” Obviously some things never change!

But hang on, "Godless self-indulgence," Santa Claus is a saint, isn't he?

Saint Nicholas was a 4th Century Turkish saint who was the patron saint of children, and renowned for giving gifts. He had his feast day on 6th December. So Father Christmas is Santa Claus? Yes and no, because Santa Claus has enabled the church to Christianize an ancient mythical figure. You see the clue is in Father Christmas' appearance. If he was truly Saint Nicklaus, then why is he not draped in religious symbolism?

One thought has it that Coca Cola commissioned his present form in 1931 for a Christmas ad campaign. Santa Claus had of course come to America via the Sinterklaas known by Dutch settlers, among others. He had been portrayed in numerous guises, including that of the jolly grandfatherly figure which Coca Cola wanted. But this theory is wrong; he was often portrayed as wearing red, long before Coca Cola hijacked him for their corporate imagery.

So we are still left with the questions: why does he look the way he does, why the reindeer and why does he live in the far north and not on a mountain in modern Turkey?

Well there is another, perhaps more plausible theory --one that links all his attached symbolism of reindeer and sleigh rides across the skies -- and it's something much older and darker. It’s probably best if I guide you there, so pull on those warm boots and gloves and wrap that scarf around you…

Take yourself back, back in time, back to dark winter nights; the snow is thick and suffocating. Food is perhaps threatening to become scarce. You wonder if perhaps the winter will ever end; what does the future hold? As the wind and wolves howl you gather with your friends and family in the longhouse.  Outside the eaves are decorated with icicles, but inside it is warm. This is a sacred time; an astronomical milestone has been reached.

By the fire’s light songs are sung and tales are told and the priestly shaman steps forward. His eyes are wild and his beard is long. The gods speak to him and he urges all to listen, too. The shortest day is now upon us, so we must eat and drink to armour ourselves for the next months of hardship, but rejoice, for the warmth and sunlight will now return. He dispenses a wicked smelling brew of Soma to those who would indulge, to join him in receiving gifts of wisdom and visions from the gods, flying over the tree tops under its narcotic influence, on a magical sleigh ride across the sky. What was that? You want to try some? Of course you may; don’t worry, I’ll look after you and guide you back. Yes, it does smell and taste disgusting. I’ll speak to you later, when your senses return…

Ah, you're back. Do you see it now? No? I will explain. You see the reason why you momentarily lost yourself was because you imbibed a hallucinogen. That brew was made from fly agaric mushrooms. Yes, that’s correct, the bright red and white ones – amanita muscaria- a familiar and reminiscent colour scheme, wouldn’t you agree? They grow at the feet of fir trees, like brightly packaged presents under the Christmas tree in fact…

“But,” you say, “fly agarics are poisonous toadstools; what have you let me drink?”

Well, yes they are but don’t fret. You see the shaman is crafty and wise. He knows that reindeer actively seek out these fungi to eat. He observes them and uses their bodies to filter the toxins, but retain the intoxicants. It does mean you've just drunk reindeer urine but what doesn't kill you makes you stronger, right?

 Merry Christmas!


  1. Rob I was so mesmerised by this, absolutely fascinated. You covered a whole lot of stuff I never even realised. And I'm still feeling the effects of that reindeer wee

  2. Oh my word! Rob! Extraordinary! I so enjoyed reading this, and just imagine drinking reindeer wee... I'm not sure I would like that drink to make me stronger! *Pulls yuck face here* Fabulous post Rob, just fabulous!

  3. Goodness gracious. Back in the day, when I was a young hippy, I might have said, "Let me drink some." Not today.