Everyone knows that Santa Claus hails from Lapland, where he spends the year in his elf-run toy factory, pausing only to feed his red-nosed reindeer Rudolf, before loading his sleigh each Christmas and delivering presents to children around the world. But where did it all start, just who is Santa, and why does he perform this amazing role every Christmas Eve?
Santa, or rather his alter-ego Nicholas, was born around 270 AD, not in Lapland, but on the Mediterranean shores of (what is now) Turkey in Patara. Nicholas came from a wealthy family but his parents died when he was still young. Fortunately, his uncle was Bishop of the adjacent town of Myra and took in the young Nicholas, raising him for the church.
What we know of Nicholas was only recorded centuries after his death but it appears that he succeeded his uncle as Bishop of Myra at a very young age. Slowly, stories about this boy bishop spread. One time, for instance, when Nicholas was on pilgrimage to Egypt, he worked miracles to stop ships being wrecked upon rocks and even brought a dead sailor back to life. This was not the only time that Nicholas resurrected the dead. He also restored three boys to life after they had been slain by an unscrupulous butcher who intended to sell their remains as ham.
Most famous, however, was the help Nicholas gave to three daughters from an impoverished family. Unable to afford a dowry, the father of the girls could not arrange their marriage and feared they would be forced into prostitution. Nicholas, upon hearing of the girls’ fate, secretly left gold in their house, securing their future betrothal and, hopefully, happiness.
Nicholas was later canonised as St Nicholas and became a favourite of fishermen and travellers on account of him saving the ships and resurrecting sailor. Greece, a nation of fishermen, took him as their Patron Saint and he became enmeshed with the Orthodox Church. During the Crusades, pilgrims and warriors would pray to St Nicholas before making sea crossings and they spread his cult throughout Europe and beyond.
As the Orthodox Church moved into Russia, it took its most prominent saint, Nicholas, with it and he quickly became the Patron Saint of Russia. Not everyone in Russia was Christian, however, and the original inhabitants, the Viking Rus, were from Scandinavia. They had brought their pagan Gods with them and it is possible that they account for the first metamorphosis of St Nicholas.
Until recent times, the tradition for much of northern Europe was for St Nicholas to deliver presents to children on his feast day: December 6th (the day of his death). This tradition likely stems from his gift of dowries to the poor man’s daughters. But why he arrives on a flying grey horse, accompanied by mischievous and capricious black-faced elves, is less easy to explain. Unless, from the traditions of the Viking Rus, St Nicholas took on some of the qualities of the Norse God Odin, who also rides a flying grey horse and is accompanied by black-faced ravens. St Nicholas had become a Nordic saint.
St Nicholas’s next metamorphosis likely occurred in the depths of Russian Siberia as settlers forged their way into the frozen wilderness of the north. Local Siberians followed shamanic traditions and, upon hearing of St Nicholas – who healed, brought souls back from the dead, and bestowed otherworldly goods to his community – readily decided that he was a powerful shaman and assimilated him into their pantheon of spirits. An Evenki individual interviewed in 1913 even claimed St Nicholas was ‘Master of Shamans’.
Such shamans often journey to other realms, carried on the beat of their reindeer skin drums. In fact, many Siberian shamans believe their drum actually is a reindeer, carrying them upwards, through the smoke-hole in the roof, and north to an otherworldly reality. Returning with gifts of knowledge, the shaman comes back via the smoke-hole and tells the wide-eyed community of his or her extraordinary journey. All the while, bells on their costume ring loudly, warning the spirits of their passage. If St Nicholas was a shaman then naturally he did the same.
Shamanic St Nicholas likely merged with Nordic St Nicholas to create the legend of a man who travels from the north, pulled by flying reindeer, with bells on his costume, bringing gifts to children made by his helper elves, all delivered via the smoke-hole, now a chimney. In a nod to the distant past, he even wears his bright red bishop’s cloak.
St Nicholas, in his Dutch homeland in northern Europe, is Sinta Klauss: Santa Claus. The finishing touches were added by American writer Washington Irving in his fictional ‘Father Knickerbocker’s History of New York’ and high-jacked by Coca-Cola whose jovial and slightly-overweight Santa took the Coca-Cola brand, and Santa Claus along with it, worldwide.
Rudolph first appeared in a 1939 booklet written by Robert L. May but it is striking that, in Santa’s home of Lapland, reindeer are fond of munching on the hallucinogenic red-and-white fly agaric mushrooms. The local Sámi, who were also partial to the effects of the drug, likely recognised the feelings of lightness it engendered. And a high-flying reindeer flushed with fly agaric may indeed have had a bright red shiny nose. Santa Claus – one time saint, then shaman, and now beloved of children everywhere – had found his companion.