Just like most things in our secular holidays (all of them — not just Christmas!), Santa Clause very much has pagan roots! In fact the history of this pop culture icon is one that has long fascinated me. I wish I could tell you when I made these discoveries because it would make such a great intro to this blog post, but the truth is I think I’ve discovered it slowly over time only to find it corroborated through historical fact! But in keeping with my blog title I’m not going to make you wait for the answer to the “mystery”… Are you ready? Here it is: Santa Clause is ODIN. That’s right, the Norse-Germanic god of war and wisdom. Think I’m nuts? Keep reading… I’ll make a believer out of you yet!
You’ll no doubt notice that the Santa in the image above here is a bit skinnier than the commonly depicted version. That is no coincidence as I present to you this image of Odin:
Odin can be seen in many iterations, but the one that concerns us most here today is Odin as “The Wanderer” or “The Traveler”. Although not depicted riding a horse here, Odin was said to ride his magickal steed, Sleipnir, seeking out knowledge. And, interestingly, in many vintage depictions of Santa (before Coca Cola got their hands on the character and turned him in the fat, jolly man we see today) he is shown as a tall, thin man with a generous white beard, wearing a fur trimmed coat, and riding the countryside on horseback.
Additionally, in his earliest depictions, Santa Claus was called Father Christmas and one of the epithets often applied to Odin is Jólfaðr (Yule Father).
And while we’re on the subject of horse back that brings us to my next point here:
So I mentioned Sleipnir above but I did NOT mention the part where this magickal horse has EIGHT legs! Jogging your memory, do you happen to know how many reindeer Santa is said to have? Eight. Plus one source I came across points out that the names of the reindeer are Germanic words such as Donner and Blitzen which mean “Thunder” and “Lightning” respectively. So much of Santa’s lore is almost blatantly Norse-Germanic it’s staggering! (Not to mention that one’s of Odin’s sons, Thor, is the god of Thunder and Lightning!)
Odin rides Sleipnir all of the time but the most pertinent to my argument here is:
The Wild Hunt
I talked about it a bit back around Samhain, too, in my blog post about Remembering the Yuletide Spirit last week. The Wild Hunt was a procession led by Odin through the skies typically on the night of the winter solstice. In addition the ghostly events described in that blog post, it was believed that Odin and Sleipnir would themselves individual homes. It was tradition to leave straw and carrots in their boots for Sleipnir and in their place he would leave toys and treats for the children who were well-behaved!
If this doesn’t sound almost exactly like Santa Clause, I don’t know what does!
Odin the Gift-Giver
And, of course, Odin himself was known for his generosity of spirit. The Norse-Germanic people strongly believed that Odin knew who was “good” and who was “bad” as a result of the watchful eyes of his ravens, Huginn and Munnin. He was known to visit those people he favored all in his search for wisdom and knowledge, again, in his aspect of The Wanderer.
Even Santa’s elves can be explained by connecting him back to the mythology around Odin! Elves were known for being creators and crafters of miraculous objects including Gungnir, Odin’s magickal spear. And in the Eddic poem, Thorsdrapa refers to the Elves as “Odin’s Men”. Indeed, one of Odin’s many epithets, prior to its being passed onto god of the Vanir, Freyr, also includes Lord of Alfheim; realm of the elves.
Of course I am not trying to erase or invalidate the contribution of St. Nicholas (who is associated with Santa mostly due to his generosity for penchant for gift-giving). However, I suspect that — much like Christmas itself — it was an attempt to overlay Christian ideals over an originally pagan concept. And I think we can all agree that Santa is wholly much more influenced and inspired by Odin than an old Catholic bishop!
Do you decorate or work with Odin/Santa at all in your holiday celebrations or traditions? Tell me about your work with Santa in the comments below!