Santa Claus is coming to town. (Scream!)

Santa’s a strange guy. 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!

1881 illustration by Thomas Nast,
who helped create the modern image of Santa Claus

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 along. This would explain 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 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.

'The Wild Hunt' by Peter Nicolai Arbo

Along with these flying pagan gods, other dangerous creatures stalked the land, particularly in northern countries such as Scandinavia. These ogres would try and enter houses and eat the children. Since midwinter was a particularly good night for visits from ogres, families would often sleep together downstairs and leave food and drink out to appease the monstrous visitor. The night before Christmas wasn’t therefore a visit from a jolly, magical old man but more like the film ‘Night of the Living Dead’. ‘Lock all the doors! Get the children out of their rooms! Oooh god! I hope he just takes the cookies and leaves! Hans, did you barricade the fireplace and place a horseshoe on it! You didn’t? Oh nooooooo.....!’

Not surprisingly, Christian Europe tried to downplay this dark pagan aspect of midwinter. Barricading the house against nightmarish visitors riding flying animals, all on the same weekend as Christ being born, was a bit of a clash. To deal with this, the citizens of Europe came up with a brilliant plan. It was simple; only the bad children would get eaten by the monstrous ogre/shamanic god/wild man of the woods. The good ones would get St Nicholas. This approach gave rise to a dual Christmas figure in Europe - St Nicholas with his Christian love and gift giving and Black Peter beside him; a bearded, blackened, wild man equipped with sticks and weapons to beat, and in some cases, disembowel naughty children. St Nicholas and Black Peter would both visit and the kids got one of them, depending on how they’d behaved. In a nutshell, if the kids were good, they got wonderful Christian charity. If they were bad, they got pagan evil! What Christmas must have been like for children then, it’s hard to imagine. If you were good, you woke up on Christmas day with presents in your stocking (or shoes as St Nicholas was wont to do). If you were bad, you didn’t wake up. Your parents just gathered up your remains while remarking sadly on how their parental guidance hadn’t prevented your ill mannered path to hideous death.

In the latter part of the nineteenth century, people in the United States came up with a new approach (I’m guessing or hoping it was because they wanted to get closer to Christ’s message of unconditional love). Disemboweling was therefore out. They didn’t actually remove the scary bearded wild man with supernatural powers entering through the chimney seeking warm food of any kind. Instead, they transformed him into the nice bearded wild man with supernatural powers that entered through the chimney seeking warm food of any kind. They then grafted St Nicholas’s kind generosity on to him and, bob’s your uncle, Santa Claus was created. He could still punish the bad kids - usually by leaving them coal - but otherwise it was kindness all the way.

What’s a little strange nowadays is that no one seems to stop and say ‘why on earth are we letting our young children believe in a bizarre shamanic supernatural bearded old man?’ It’s particularly odd since many people wouldn’t let their kids believe in UFO’s. Is it a delight in magic, a paternal figure? Who knows. It’s something to think about as we tuck ourselves (and our children) into bed on Christmas Eve. Let’s face it, based on his history, no sane person would want him to exist. I personally would like to be alive on Christmas morning. If I’m a mess of bloody entrails by the fireplace, who’s going to eat all the mince pies?

Happy Christmas!