Santa Claus, St. Nicholas, Father Christmas all names for an archetypal character almost synonymous with Christmas. As the winter holidays approach, I thought it might be interested in taking a historical look at the shamanic origins of the Santa Claus legend.
First, I believe that the character of Santa, as he is understood in the U.S,, has been shaped by an amalgam of influences including folklore and media. Most of us are at least familiar with the poem A Visit from St. Nicholas written in 1823 by Clement Moore. You know, the one that begins, “Twas the night before Christmas.”Our images of Santa come mostly from modern advertising. Coca-Cola has been using images of St. Nick since the 1920 and helped solidify our modern image of the fellow. Before then Santa was sometimes depicted as an elf, in religious garb, or even in Norse hunter’s skins.
Santa has been so associated with flying reindeer, that they have been the subjects of songs, TV specials, and movies for many years. We even know their names - Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner, Blitzen. But think about how strange that is. What do flying reindeer have to do with Christmas or a sainted Greek bishop?
However, both the Tungus shamans of Siberia as well as the Sami shamans from Scandinavia give us a tantalizing clue to the origin of this part of the legend. These shamans fed magic mushrooms to their reindeer. Amanita muscaria mushrooms are red and white and are hallucinogenic.
These shamans collect the urine of the drugged reindeer and drink it. They have discovered that the hallucinogenic properties are enhanced. They go into an altered state and even urinate into bowls which are then consumed by others. It’s been found that the hallucinogenic urine can pass through 7 people without losing potency.
They then perceive that they are flying in a shamanic journey. Returning with spiritual gifts through the smoke-hole (chimney) of the yurt.
Link to Odin and Norse Myths
Odin is a fascinating character from Norse myth. Not only is he the god of war, but he’s also a trickster, traveler, and giver of gifts. He’s often described as a traveler with a long beard in a wide-brimmed, floppy hat. Think of our traditional images of wizards like Merlin or Gandalf or Dumbledore. These are not coincidentally linked to images of Odin.
Odin and Freya, are two Norse gods closely associated with shamanism. The sagas even talk about Odin scandalously dressing as a woman to practice a form of magic closely resembling shamanism.
The words Yule and Yuletide have come to be synonymous with Christmas in Christianized Western culture, but Yule or Jul was the traditional celebration of the winter solstice. Yule is from the Anglo-Saxon word “geola”, meaning yoke. Yuletide was a 12 day celebration (12 days of Christmas anyone?) starting on the shortest day of the year, welcoming the return of the sun.
So many of our Christmas traditions, from caroling to Christmas trees, to mistletoe are taken directly from European pagan cultures like the Norse and the Celts.
Odin goes by many names in Norse myths, but one that sticks out is jólfaðr. This is an old Norse for (Yule Father) - very close to “Father Christmas” in my book. It’s also telling that he is associated with The Wild Hunt, which was a spectral hunt that flew through the air during Yule. Odin rides on an 8-legged horse, Sleipnir. One leg for each of Santa’s reindeer perhaps?
For me, it is fun to read about and speculate how all of these cultural forces came together to shape one of the most recognized characters in our culture. I’d like to think that one of our most beloved folk characters as, in fact, a shaman.