Wednesday, 17 December 2014

The Origin of Santa Claus and the Customs of Christmas: Part Two

The Companions of Saint Nicholas by Spearhafoc
Last time we learned about Saint Nicholas: the legends of his generosity, of the punishments that might be doled out to naughty children, and of his connection with the modern Santa Claus.  We also learned a little bit about Zwarte Piet, or Black Peter.  Today we will further examine the companions of Santa Claus, as well as looking at some of the other forefathers of Santa Claus within Norse mythology.

Black Peter

Black Peter, like Santa Claus, is known by many names: Knecht Ruprecht, Pere Fouttard and Pelzabock der Hans Muff.

A modern postcard of Zwarte Piet
 According to Dutch tradition, Zwarte Piet was a Moorish slave who was freed by Sinterklaas.  In return for his freedome, Zwarte Piet devoted his life to serving Sinterklaas.  In Holland, Sinterklaas rides into Centennial Park on a white horse, led by Zwarte Piet during the town's Parade of Lights.  Sometimes Zwarte Piet rides a mule or walks behind Saint Nicholas.  He was the one to carry the presents for the good little children and the birch rods for the bad little children.  He was sometimes portrayed wearing clothes of a 16th century Spanish official.  He is said to have entered the house through the chimney to deliver presents.  His face has been blackened by the soot from the chimney.

The source of these legends are believed to be connected with both German and Dutch mythology, where the people were blessed by ghostly creatures capable of going up andx down chimneys like smoke.  Some traditions make Black Peter the devil who was defeated by Saint Nicholas, who then shackles him before the feast of Nicholas to do his bidding. 

Pere Fouttard
 Amongst the Germanic people Knecht Ruprecht was thought of as a 'grungy, sooty faced... farmhand or servant.'  He, like Black Peter, carries a sack and a rod.  The children would be asked to sing a religious song or to recite a religious poem.  If they were unable to do so, or if they had been naughty, Knecht Ruprecht would beat them, stuff them inside his sack and take them off to his cave in the Black Forest.

In France, Pere Fouttard would lead a donkey whose saddlebags were full of gifts.  He was dressed in black and was also known as the 'Evil Butcher' who was condemned to follow Saint Nicholas to make up for his past crimes: he would lure children into his butcher shop, where the children would meet their unfortunate end.  Children who had been naughty would be whipped.

A similar character can be found in Germany: the Krampus.  The Krampus was considered to be a 7 ft tall monster who possessed an extraordinary long tongue.  He carried a wicker basket, in which he would carry naughty children to his lair, and a whip, to punish the naughty children.  Today, in Austria, people still dress up as Krampuses and run down the streets, beating the 'bad' out of those they deem naughty.  Most families, however, use the story of the Krampus as a way to frighten their children into behaving.

The Krampus
As you can see, the unpleasant character of Black Peter and his aliases were, and in some countries still are, used as a means to make children behave themselves.  This tradition lives on in the 'better be good' attitude which accompanies Santa Claus and Christmas.  However, the punishment for misbehaviour has been lessened to a piece of coal rather than a beating with birch sticks and a trip to Hell is Black Peter's sack.

Some have argued that there are many problems with Saint Nicholas being the inspiration for the modern Santa Claus.  Santa has been portrayed as wearing a scruffy hair coat, with an unkept beard.  He is often covered in soot from sliding down the chimney and promises earthly rewards which he carries in a sack. 

Saint Nicholas, on the flip side, was meant be be just that - a saint.  So he was dressed in church attire and would have had heavenly aspirations.  Surely Saint Nicholas couldn't be considered materialistic.  However, when we look at Black Peter, we find 'a coat of hair, a disheveled beard, a bag, and ashes on his face.'  It seems that Black Peter has his own role to play within our modern perception of Santa Claus.

While Saint Nicholas and Black Peter both play a role in our modern perception of Santa Claus, there are others who help to form the modern basis for our Christmas gift-giver.  Many other ancient traditions have also been mixed into the legend.  One other influence Pagan gods of the Norse people..

The Pagan Gods of the Norse People

Midwinter by Skarbog
 Odin is usually portrayed as a long-bearded, one-eyed, old man and often appeared dressed in old robes and a hood.  In this guise he would grant gifts and boons as well as curses and catastophe.  He watched over the nine worlds, including the worlds of the elves.  Sometimes he was said to ride a flying, white horse with eight legs called Slepnir through the sky during Yule, when he would throw sweets to children.  The children would place their boots near the chimney and fill them with carrots, straw, or sugar for Odin's horse to eat and Odin would reward these children by replacing the food with gifts or sweets.  This practice, having survived Christianity, became associated with Saint Nicholas, with children still putting straw-filled shoes beside the chimney on every winter night in the hope that Saint Nicholas will reward them.

Before the Christmas tradition reached the lands of the Norse, the people celebrated Yule.  This winter holiday is associated with Odin and included feasting, drinking, and gift-giving, much like the Christmas traditions of today.  The terms Christmas and Yule have become interchangable.
While our modern Santa Claus cannot be said with certainty to have originated with Odin, there are definately similarities between this god and the holiday associated with him, and our modern Christmas.  Here we have the long beard of Santa Claus, the cloak and hood, a potential origin for Santa's elves and maybe even the reindeer.

Thor by derekulstad
 Another Norse god who is believed to be related to Santa Claus is Thor.  He was the god of peasants and the common people and was portrayed as an friendly and jolly elderly man, of heavy build, with a long white beard.  His element was fire and he was said to come down the chimney into his element, the fire.  Also, because of his element, his colour is red.  Thor was said to ride a chariot through the sky.  It was drawn by two white goats, whose names were Cracker and Gnasher.  Having fought against the ice and snow giants, Thor became the a god of Yule.  He was said to live in a palace among the icebergs in the Northland and was believed to help and protect people.  His symbol is that of a hammer, which is also the tool of a carpenter.  Thor himself was a skilled carpenter and his hammer was made by elves, who were also his helpers.

Today in Sweden Thor still represents Santa Claus, where children wait with great excitement for Jultomten; a gnome whose sleigh is drawn by the Julbocker, the goats of the god Thor.  He wears a red suit and cap and carries a bulging sack, much like our modern Santa.

The similarities between Thor and Santa Claus are very difficult to ignore.  Here we have the jovial old man, the long white beard, the trips up and down the chimney, the potential origin of Santa's red suit, a possible start for Santa's flying sleigh drawn by animals with similar names to our reindeer, and Santa's home at the North Pole.  We also have a skilled carpenter, whose symbol was a hammer, and the elves who are said to help him, much like Santa's elves.

Father winter by alexson1
Old Man Winter, also known as Father Winter, is another Norse character who has found a place within our modern Christmas.  Some believe that Old Man Winter is another personification of Odin on account of the giant white horse he was said to ride.  Depicted as wearing a hooded fur coat, this characted also had a long white beard and was welcomed into homes to enjoy the festivities.  During the 8th and 9th centuries, when the Vikings conquered Britain, Old Man Winter was introduced and became the English Father Christmas.

That's all for today.  Next time we will further examine Yule, the Winter Solstice, which may provide us with further clues of how the holiday of Christmas began.

Useful Resources

Oddball Michigan: A Guide to 450 Really Strange Places by Jerome Pohlen
Santa's Book of Knowledge by Santa Al Horton
Santa Claus: Is He for Your Child? by John L. Hoh
The Curious Tales of Santa Claus by Gregory Conte and Therese Conte
Santa Claus: Last of the Wild Men by Rhylis Siefker
About Christmas by Nicolae Sfetcu
The Story of Santa Claus by Joseph McCullough

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