Santa Claus will soon be back to eat children
Where did this folk tale come from? Well, in the spirit of lazy recycling of old web articles, I thought I’d stick in a previous December blog entry. It’s from an article I wrote a few years ago on the big guy in the red suit. Here goes…
I was watching ‘Miracle on 34th Street’ yesterday and I was fascinated by the character of Santa Claus, so wonderfully played by Richard Attenborough. Who was this guy with his white-and-red outfit, black boots, white beard and twinkling eye? Why would people start to think that someone would come down their chimney at night and give their children presents? It’s a strange double standard for modern parents to have: ‘Don’t ever take sweets from strangers, go with them anywhere or let them into your house!’ ‘But mummy, what about Santa Claus?’ ‘Oh, him, that old, bearded guy? That’s perfectly okay. You should let him climb down the chimney and sneak into your rooms at night. In fact, make an effort to leave food at night for him just so he’s in a good mood.’ Dodgy guy on the street, stay away; stranger entering your rooms through the chimney at night, give him a mince pie!
The standard answer to ‘who is Santa Claus?’ is that he’s a modern version of St Nicholas, a super-wonderful saintly bishop living in Turkey in the fourth century AD - four hundred years after the birth of Christ. St Nicholas was said to have secretly given gifts to children, often placing them in the kiddies’ shoes when they weren’t around. This explains the ‘presents’ aspect of Santa Claus. That’s great, but it doesn’t explain the other stuff; flying reindeer and chimney entry in particular. To answer that, we have to go back further, past Medieval Europe and back to when Europe was a pagan land, a place ghosts and spirits were seen as mischievous and, at certain times, downright dangerous creatures that ran free over the land.
Before the arrival of Christianity in Europe, festivals in Britain were based around the solstices, the times of the year when the sun was at its lowest point, highest point and the two spots mid-way in between. These occurred at midwinter, midsummer and the spring and autumn equinox. At these times, particularly the autumn and winter equinoxes, it was believed that spirits of the dead would find it easy to enter the world of the living. To fend off these intruding spirits outdoors, people would often light bonfires or make loud noises. To prevent them coming indoors, entering people’s houses through available openings such as the doors and the chimney, people would ward them off by placing horseshoes on the doors and fireplace. You can still see horseshoes above the fireplaces in old English pubs.
When the Christian church arrived, desiring to replace these pagan beliefs with Christian ones, they placed their two key celebrations, the birth of Christ and the death of Christ, on top of the existing festivals of midwinter and the spring equinox. Although the Christian church were successful at this, they didn’t eradicate the pagan beliefs. These are still alive today. For example, the pagan fertility rite of the spring equinox (when everything is bursting out and reproducing) has still kept its emblems of eggs and fecund rabbits because, let’s face it, nothing breeds like those furry hoppers. The autumn equinox has now become halloween and kept its ghost, skeletons, witches and bonfires. The noisy fire aspect of the festival, all part of the spirit banishment plan, got hijacked by Stuart England and turned into Guy Fawkes fireworks night (a.k.a. big act of terrorist evil creating great opportunity for powerful elite to carry out massive program of violence, with the tacit support of their fearful population, against another religious group who were their rivals for wealth and power).
The festivals of Spring and Autumn have therefore kept their pagan traditions. But what of Christmas, the midwinter festival? Did it keep its pagan elements regardless of Christianity’s dominating influence? Like Halloween, pagan midwinter night was a time when spirits of the dead, ogres, goblins and other supernatural creatures were able to walk the land. Being extremely unreliable characters, no one tried to get too close to them. They could bewitch, enchant and in many cases, eat whole any person unlucky enough to bump into them. The Norse god Odin was a particularly powerful example. He was depicted as an old man with long beard, often blackened with soot. He was able to ride through the sky on a deer. He wasn’t the only one. The Wild Hunt was a particularly potent belief throughout Northern Europe. On winter nights, a horde of spirits would travel through the sky on horses, accompanied by dogs and other animals. If anyone was outside and unlucky enough to be spotted, they could be carried up by the Wild Hunt and never seen again.