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.

Red Robes and Firelight
Reaching into the sack again we find a red robe or cloak, trimmed with white. On one level, red signifies the sacred blood that links all human beings and that is also perceived as a link between humans and animals, and between the shaman and the earth. It is also, of course, a symbol of fire, that most powerful of magical weapons, as well as the gift of warmth and life to all, especially significant in such cold lands as those we are considering here.

The shamans possessed this gift of fire, which initially perhaps they alone had the power to kindle (the number of flint fire-lighters found among shaman's bundles alone is enough to suggest this) and which was a gift they brought to the tribal people they served.

It was believed that these gifts were entrusted to them for the people by the gods and spirits of the land. Here, the symbolism of red fire in the white desert of winter is a vital image. Is it stretching the point too far to see an echo of this in the red and white costume and white beard of a certain other figure?

Dipping into the sack again we find reindeer with bells on their harnesses, who can fly through the sky and cover vast distance in no time at all. This is yet another echo of the shaman's journey into and through the heavens.

So Santa is an old man dressed in red who comes out of the dark forest of the North on a sleigh pulled by reindeer...the shaman climbing down through the smoke hole of a skin tent with bells jingling, bearing in his hands a red painted wooden reindeer.

more from beliefnet and our partners
Close Ad