Unmasking the Man in Red

This Roots to the Past column appeared in newspapers on December 16th and 20th, 2017

Unmasking the Man in Red

Diane Lynn Tibert McGyver

Have you ever believed something your entire life until one day you hear information that cracks that belief? It’s like believing in Santa Clause until you’re eight and then your best friend says, “Santa ain’t real.” At first, you argue with facts from your eight years of experience but later, after you’ve had time to reflect and consider your friend’s evidence, the idea Santa Clause might not be as real as you thought starts to take hold.

When something rocks my beliefs, I immediately seek evidence to prove or debunk the information. So when a man, who descended from Vikings, explained the connection between Christmas and Yule, my reaction was to research the subject online.

What I found decimated what I had believed, and I wondered how and why our ancestors had manipulated their myths, legends or history—whatever we wish to call it—so much it was almost unrecognisable. The idea Santa Claus’ origin might be Odin, father of Thor, was mindboggling.

Odin the Wander

Odin the Wander

First, let’s put aside the Odin of current movie fame for a moment. That’s not the man of myth. Instead, let’s dig back through the centuries and see what our ancestors saw when face-to-face with the ancient figure. Let’s delve into Norse Mythology to sort this out.

Odin, originally spelt Wodan, was the king of Asgard, one of nine realms. Remember? We learned this in junior high. He was the god of war, death, the sky, wisdom and poetry. Obviously, he was versatile. Add to his resume that he was All-Father of all Nordic gods and had the gift of magic, makes him a formidable enemy and a valuable ally. He also had a soft side reserved for those who earned it.

When Christianity replaced Paganism, the Vikings didn’t change the name of their festivities held during mid-winter solstice to Christmas. They continued to call the season Yule, and the Norse still do today. The Dutch adopted Odin, transformed him into Sinterklass, which eventually translated to Santa Claus. It was forbidden to honour Odin but not Santa.

For the Vikings, Yule was strongly connected to Odin, who was also called Yule Father (aka Father Christmas). Norse children looked forward to Yule because late December marked the end of the Wild Hunt, and Odin would ride his eight-legged horse Slepnir through the villages. Children would fill their boots with hay and oats and set it by the hearth for Slepnir. Odin repaid their kindness by leaving candy or a small gift in their boots.

The first known mention of reindeer connected to Santa was in an 1821-New York newspaper article. Then Clement C. Moore’s famous poem ’Twas the Night Before Christmas in 1823 solidified the idea in the minds of Americans. Before this, Santa always rode a horse. Why did Moore choose eight reindeer, not six or four? Think of Slepnir’s eight legs.

Odin riding Slepnir during the Wild Hunt

Odin riding Slepnir during the Wild Hunt.

The biggest transformation for Santa was when the man—once tall, slim, wizard-like, bearded and in a green robe—was changed into an short, overweight, red-suited jolly old man by a cola company in the 1930s.

Fun Facts: It was the goat—representing Thor’s goats, which pulled his chariot across the sky—who delivered gifts in Scandinavia between the time Christianity took root and the 1800s. The day Wednesday was originally called Wodan’s Day (Odin’s Day). It was shortened to Wodansday, then Wednesday.

Happy Winter Solstice, Merry Christmas, Happy Yule and have a great new year.

Images were found at WikiCommons

Odin: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Georg_von_Rosen_-_Oden_som_vandringsman,_1886_(Odin,_the_Wanderer).jpg

Odin and Slepnir: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Odin_rides_to_Hel.jpg

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