Is Santa Actually A Dutch Immigrant?
This time of year, Santa makes his appearance again, riding the skies in his reindeer drawn sledge, and filling socks with candy and presents whilst cheerfully yelling ho ho ho! But where did this jolly figure come from? Is it true the myth originated in the Netherlands? At Christmas, most Western people celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. We do this by setting up a Christmas tree in our home, decorating it with balls and candy, and hanging socks from our chimney that a mythical figure called Santa Claus will come and fill with presents on Christmas Eve. Presents that do not fit in the sock, are left underneath the tree. This Santa Claus is a jolly corpulent guy that somehow seems to fit through a chimney (even if there is none), and flies through the sky in a reindeer drawn sledge cheerfully jelling ho ho ho!
Somehow, this Santa figure does not quite fit in with the Christian idea of Christmas, and yet we are all so fond of him that it would be unthinkable to celebrate the holidays without him. Have you ever wondered where this strange mix of traditions came from? I have, and I will happily share my findings with you on these pages. You will even find out that Santa has, at least in part, Dutch roots just like you!
Wodan And His Eight Legged Horse
As you may have guessed already, Santa Claus has very ancient pagan roots. Many cultural historians believe that it all began with the Northern European belief in winter spirits ruling over storm, thunder, and frost. These evil winter spirits had to be chased away or bribed at the end of the sowing season (beginning of December) by making lots of noise and giving them offerings in order to secure a safe winter and a fertile new year.
Over time, these spirits got their own names and characters. The Germanic people created Wodan also known as Odin a wild God with an awful temper that ruled over storm and thunder. He rode an eight-legged horse named Sleipnir, was accompanied by two ravens –Huginn and Muninn– and in his hand he had a spear that never missed his target.
Every year in autumn, Wodan would lead "The Great Hunt". A phantasmagorical pack of hunters –consisting of the dead, fairies or evil spirits– would race along the sky or just above the ground. On their way they would kidnap maidens and people that dared laugh at Odin. It is thought that The Wild Hunt is in fact an allegory of the autumn storms, with Wodan and his hunters representing the storms and the maidens the autumn leaves.
Christianization Of Wodan
The cult of Wodan and his wild hunters was still alive in the Middle Ages throughout the Germanic cultures. The pagan tradition of reenacting The Wild Hunt was seen as diabolic by the Church. In order to wipe out this "despicable" tradition the Church introduced a new Christianized version of the festivities in the 13th century: the feast of Saint Nicholas on December 6.
This feast was inspired by Nicholas from Myra who had lived in the 4th century in Turkey. Many wonders were attributed to this saint and he became the patron of children, unmarried women, merchants, and seamen.
He became especially popular in the Netherlands during the 14th and 15th centuries. At first it was mainly a feast for the adults. There would be a fair in town and the poor would leave a shoe in the church on December 5, which the rich would then fill with some money and food. Later, this evolved into the tradition of children putting their shoe by the chimney to find them filled with candy and toys in the morning.
In the 17th century Holland became mainly protestant and the catholic feast of Saint Nicholas was officially abolished. Unofficially however, the tradition never really died out.
The modern version of Saint Nicholas was born in the 19th century, and is mainly inspired by the work of the teacher Jan Schenkman who wrote a children's book about the saint. He introduced the concept of Saint Nicholas arriving by steamship, of his helper Black Pete that puts bad children in his sack to take them away to Spain and the idea that Nicholas rides on the roof on his white horse throwing presents down the chimney. But if you look closely, none of these elements is new. They all go back to the cult of Wodan: the ravens became Black Pete, Sleipnir became a magical horse, naughty children were kidnapped instead of maidens, and the frightening god became a compassionate and giving saint.
A Saint In A Snow Suit
Dutch emigrants brought their tradition of Saint Nicholas with them to America, where the saint's name was anglicized to Santa Claus. But the Dutch were not the only immigrants with a gift giving winter figure. The British and Irish had Father Christmas: an allegorical representation of the merry spirit of Christmas. A cheerful old man in a green furry snowsuit. When these two cultures met in America, the two figures merged into the jolly red suited man we all know today.