Santa Claus Was a Shaman

The long history of the man in red who comes bearing gifts.

BY: John and Caitlin Matthews

 

Santa Claus is only the latest of many figures that have come to be associated with bringing gifts on the night of December 25th. In France presents are given on New Year's Day and called

entrennes,

a name that can be traced back to the strenae, green branches, exchanged between people at the Roman feast of the goddess Strenia. In Sicily it is an old woman named Strina who brings gifts at Christmas, continuing a tradition that began in the days of the Roman Empire.

The figure who stands behind the jolly old man of Christmas is older even than this, however. In fact, his story takes us back to the beginning of recorded history, when some other characters climbed up trees of a different kind, and returned with gifts for everyone. These were not toys or perfume or watches, but messages concerning the year to come, the turning of the seasons, or the fate of the world. These people were shamans, who performed the functions of priest, historian, and record keeper, scientist and magician.

Of course there were shamans all over the world, and in most cases, they performed the same or similar functions, but, for obvious reasons, it is those who originated in the far North--anywhere from Lapland to Siberia--that interest us most in this context. It is these people who often wore bells on their ritual costumes, who shinned up the central poles of their skin tents, and who returned with the gifts of prophecy and wonder from the Otherworlds. It is to these people that we have to look for the first appearance of the figure who, thousands of years later, evolved into the jolly old man of Christmas himself, Santa Claus.

If we look for a moment at some of those similarities we can catch a glimpse of the evolution of one into the other. If we dip our hands into Santa's sack--so like the shaman's bag of tricks--the first thing we find are the bells that jingle on the harness of the eight magical reindeer. Contemporary accounts of northern shamans, including those of the Altaic and Buryat regions of Siberia and those of the Finns and Laplanders, again and again emphasize the importance of bells in their traditional costumes. These form a double function; as noise-makers to announce the presence of the shaman as he enters the spirit world, and to frighten off any unfriendly spirits who might be lying in wait for him.

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