Santa’s Many Faces: Shaman, Sailor, Saint
Holly, Jolly Old Elf, Other Traditions Show Solstice’s Mongrel Past
by Kathie Dawn
Pagan celebration of Winter Solstice is a tradition with its roots in the ancient past, twining from hunter-gatherer cultures through the Old Religion of Europe, influenced by the rise of Christianity from the Middle East. A look at some of the history can help you design your personal Solstice traditions.
Santa the Shaman
For tens of thousands of years, we humans have celebrated the seasons, the lunar and solar cycles and other natural events. While our bodies are not as strictly regulated as animals’ regarding mating, migration or hibernation, we are deeply affected by our circadian rhythms, the lunar pull and our hormones, which interact with the sun. According to Jeremy Rifkin in Time Wars, “Chronobiology provides a rich new conceptual framework for rethinking the notion of relationships in nature. In the temporal scheme of things, life, earth and universe are viewed as partners in a tightly synchronized dance in which all of the separate movements pulse in unison to create a single organic whole.”
Our ancient ancestors felt this connection without benefit of scientific explanations. Following their hearts and beliefs, they played their part in that dance. “Our holiday celebrations evolve in a cycle. We even refer to it as ‘The Wheel of the Year,'” notes Richard Heinberg in Celebrate the Solstice. “Being aware of the different cycles in life, and understanding our place in them, were a part of our development as humans.” In this cycle, in northern regions, Winter Solstice is often seen as the ending of the old year and the beginning of a new year.
In the early European cultures, a shaman of the Herne/Pan god led Winter Solstice rituals, initiated the new year, rewarded the good, punished the bad, officiated at sacrifices and headed fertility rites, according to Tony van Renterghem in his book When Santa Was A Shaman. This Herne/Pan god went by many names, always portrayed as dark, furry or wearing animal skins, with antlers or horns and – up to the seventeenth century – with an erect penis. Van Renterghem asserts “these (Herne/Pan) shamans sang, danced, jumped over fires in sexually symbolic fertility rites, some involving the besom, the broom-like phallic rod.”
Shamanic traditions survived into historic times. Leaders and kings who wanted to see themselves as divine priest-kings – such as Moses and Alexander the Great – were depicted with shamanic horns. Shamanic horns on Moses shows an overlapping of pagan and Judeo-Christian beliefs that also appears in celebrations at Solstice.
Santa as a Christian and a Sailor
“(Christmas) was a seeming Christian answer to the pagan festival Natalis Solis Invicti, which carried with it the flavour of merrymaking of the Roman Saturnalia,” Vivian Green writes in A New History of Christianity.
Christianity grew up with paganism, specifically Roman paganism. The Roman Empire ruled the land where the cult of Christianity was formed. The beliefs of this new religion were radically different from most pagans’, and many people assumed the group would quickly die, as do many fads. But within 300 years, the cult was considered an unlicensed religion within the Empire. While the Romans had a long history of assimilating the gods of the conquered peoples into their own religion as a way of easing the transition, this was not easily accomplished with Christianity. There were a couple attempts to wipe out the religion, but the Christians maintained their foothold in the Empire by appealing to the lower classes and the illiterate.
Constantine called the Nicean Council of 325 after he reunited the faltering Empire. Having converted to Christianity, he wanted to bring unity and a single leadership to the faith. The emperor was openly hostile to pagans. Peter Partner, in Two Thousand Years-The First Millennium: The Birth of Christianity to the Crusades, tells us that “although pagan beliefs were not in themselves made illegal, many of the institutions that supported pagan worship were in effect proscribed.” A semblance of the Old Religion was allowed to continue, but only lip service was paid to religious tolerance.
As Christianity marched on, entire tribes were converted. Charlemagne instituted a “baptize them or kill them” campaign against the “barbarians” on his borders. The conversion of Germanic peoples to Christianity changed the texture of the Roman Christian church.
Gregory of Tours’ History of the Franks, circa 590, and Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, circa 720, both expressed anxiousness about the wealth and privilege the church received as rulers and great magnates were converted. The church had to absorb these rulers’ values and culture, with the end result that “Christianity had been successfully assimilated by a warrior nobility,” according to John McManners in The Oxford History of Christianity. This was a “nobility which had no intention of abandoning its culture or seriously changing its way of life, but which was willing to throw its traditions, customs, tastes and loyalties into the articulation of a new faith.”
The mass conversion “did not sweep away pagan culture in a few moments,” writes McManners. “We are reminded every year by the feasts of Christmas, the Winter Solstice celebration of the northerners for which the nativity of Christ is a cheeky Christian misnomer, and of the New Year, in Roman usage the great pagan feast of Lupercalia. In Rome the ancient fertility rites of Carnomania were still celebrated annually in the presence of the pope, as late as the eleventh century.”
Pagan customs persisted within the heart of Christianity, and both faiths coexisted at the outer borders of the new religion’s territory. While many people assume Christmas celebrations have a dark, distant pagan origin, it would be more accurate to say the two grew up together.
As Charlemagne began his conversion process, the legend of St. Nicholas was born. He was said to have been the Bishop of Myra in Lycia, now Turkey. According to “The Origin of Santa Claus” at http://www.religioustolerance.org, “He is alleged to have attended the first council of Nicea; however, his name does not appear on lists of attending bishops.” http://Www.religioustolerance.org calls him a “Christianized version of various pagan sea gods – the Greek god, Poseidon, the Roman god, Neptune, and the Teutonic god, Hold Nickar.” Crichton dates St. Nicholas even earlier, claming he was imprisoned in 303, during the Roman emperor Diocletian’s effort to return the Empire to the worship of its old gods. Later, Constantine supposedly released him.
Nicholas was credited with many miracles, including aiding sailors at sea, providing dowries for young women who otherwise could not marry and using prayer to resurrect three little boys who had been killed and pickled in brine. He performed miracles even after his death on December 6, 342; a mysterious liquid dubbed the Manna of St. Nicholas was collected annually from his tomb and used to heal the faithful. The tales of St. Nicholas spread to Russia as Christianity converted the Eastern world. He became known as “Nikolai Chudovorits,” the Wonder Worker.
By the seventeenth century, the patron saint reached Siberia, where tribes of nomadic horsemen lived. These tribes lived in tents during the summer, but north of the Arctic Circle, they needed something sturdier during winter. Their timber huts became buried in snow, with the only way in or out being by ladder through the smoke holes in the roof. Their annual renewal ceremony, according to Crichton, took place with their shaman entering a trance and climbing on a symbolic journey through the smoke hole. Christian tradition overtaking the indigenous religion, Nikolai became a Super Shaman, acting as a “mystic go-between for the people and their new Christian God.” He would descend the smoke hole, another way of jumping over fire, to deliver gifts.
Nicholas traveled other directions as well, to reach the Normans, who as well as conquering England in the eleventh century engaged as traders and mercenaries in lands they did not control. They ruled the seas, and learned about St. Nicholas at Myra. As they had done with other saints elsewhere, the Normans accepted St. Nicholas into their belief system. Traveling with the Normans, St. Nicholas spread up the rivers and into the towns. A basilica was built in Bari, which became a great shrine to Nicholas. During the Crusades, countless people passed through Bari, making their obligatory stops at the shrines. From there, St. Nicholas traveled throughout the continent and beyond.
Dutch Santa and His Moorish Slave
In the fifteenth century, the Netherlands became a Spanish territory. Trade with the Indies and Americas made the Netherlands an important area. Spaniards filled the government and religious offices, and they brought St. Nicholas with them. To this day, the Dutch “Sinter Klaas” arrives by boat from Spain, dressed as a bishop with the tall hat and miter, riding a white horse. As was fashionable at the time during the Spanish Empire, Sinter Klaas had a Moorish slave who became known as “Zwarte Piet.”
In Crichton’s book, we find that “many of the customs surrounding Sinter Klaas are vestiges of an older, pre-Christian religion. Checking up on naughty children, riding a white horse, and leaving food out at night, can all be traced back to Woden or Odin.” In Finland, St. Nicholas “assumed human form, adopting the older name of ‘Joulupukki,’ which literally means Yule Goat, and again harks back to Odin and the Old Norse customs.”
In van Renterghem’s work, we see that the Herne/Pan side of St. Nicholas was further restored. In 1581, the Dutch declared independence from both the Roman Catholic pope and the Spanish monarchy. Zwarte Piet, Sinter Klaas’ dark servant, was returned to the fore as their shaman-god. When the Church tried to denounce Zwarte Piet as a devil, the Dutch retaliated by drawing him as a Spanish-looking devil, further aiding the Dutch cause. Children were encouraged to be good, or they would be carried off in Zwarte Piet’s bag to Spain.
As the legend of St. Nicholas grew, he often had helpers who were easily traced to pagan roots. According to WorldBook, examples of these helpers include Knecht Ruprecht in Germany, Pere Fouettard in parts of France and Hoesecker in Luxembourg.
The Protestant Reformation ended the religious observance of Christmas temporarily in some places, more permanently in others such as England. This sparked several inventions that seemed even more pagan-oriented than the newly outlawed Christmas. In Germany, the Protestants invented “Christkindl,” “a Christ child figure often played by a girl in a white robe with a veil and a star on her head – another legacy from the Roman Festivals,” from Crichton’s perspective. In Hungary, where Catholicism again replaced Protestantism, “the religious St. Nicholas, the secular Christkindl and the fur-clad Weihnachtsmann (Christmas Man) all exist side by side.”
In North America, the Puritans made it a punishable offense to celebrate Christmas. But when Dutch settlers sailed to Manhattan, the figurehead on the flagship was none other than Sinter Klaas. Gradually the name was changed to Santa Claus.
In England, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert helped re-invent Christmas, and Santa was reintroduced to England around this time. As a British gift-giver, Santa Claus had many rivals including CheapJack, The Lord of Misrule, Knecht Rupert and Father Christmas.
In the United States, Santa Claus was further refined in literature and illustration. In 1822, Clement Clark Moore wrote The Night Before Christmas. In 1863, Thomas Nast used childhood memories of a small fur-clad fellow to create images for Harper’s Magazine. In the 1930s, Santa hawked Coca-Cola, and in 1939, Robert L. May added Rudolph to the reindeer herd. By the 1960s, Santa had become quite commercial. During Vatican II, the Roman Catholic Church concluded that St. Nicholas had never been officially canonized, recognizing the probable source of his notoriety as being pagan gods and legends.
Many other modern Solstice traditions have such pagan origins. Mistletoe was sacred to the Greeks and Romans as well as to the Celts, who according to When Santa Was A Shaman, “called this mistletoe ‘Thunder-Besom’ (from the besom, or broom, an ancient sexual symbol of male and female organs)” – which besom dates back to the Herne/Pan shamans. “The Germanic tribes believed that all who passed under the mistletoe were kissed (blessed with sexual power) by Freya, their goddess of fertility.” The modern practice of a kiss beneath the mistletoe could still be seen as a minor fertility rite.
Whether performing in a pageant or dressing up as the jolly old elf for the kiddies, putting on Winter Solstice costumes also has ancient origins. Crichton notes that “in all primitive religions when a player dons a mask he is deemed no longer an ordinary man. For himself and those who take part in the ritual, he embodies the spirit he is impersonating.”
It should come as no surprise that we continue with rituals and practices that some believe are 10,000 years old. Children still play with toys from the 5000-year-old tale of Noah’s Ark. We still use the names of 2000-year-old Germanic and Greco-Roman pagan gods and festivals to identify the months and the days of the week. So too, we keep Santa in his many masks.
How Pagans Can Renew the World
Winter Solstice in northern climes is often a time of world renewal and the New Year. Theodor H. Gaster’s New Year: Its History, Customs, and Superstitions outlines the rites of nearly all ancient New Year and world renewal ceremonies as following the same four steps: mortification, purgation, invigoration and jubilation.
In mortification, whose root-word “mort” means death, it is easy to see death symbolized in how the life of the people and the land slowed down. Often during this time, no business was transacted. The king was either ritually or actually slain, depending on the custom. Sometimes this involved mock combat between Life and Death, or Old Year and New Year. His death paid for the evil of the past year.
Next, the community purged itself of all evil influences through fires, ringing of bells and cleansing with water. Life was then invigorated with positive steps that symbolized renewal. The people and the land were made fertile and productive again by a deliberate release of sexual energy. Then, in jubilant celebration, feasts and other merriment were enjoyed. Life had prevailed. Nature and the community would continue for another year.
Drawing on this outline and the superabundance of Solstice ideas and examples, today’s pagan can create a personal tradition. To gain a deeper connection between you and the cycle of Solstice, try adding something new. Visit a sacred site, or spend time with the land where you live. Visit a place where you can observe wild animals. Where possible, plant a tree, or some green plants indoors. Watch the sunrise and the sunset on Solstice Day, and feel a connection with your ancestors. Play the Super Shaman for your friends and family. Attach a note to each gift you give with something amusing about the person, and have everyone read the note aloud.
Food and drink can play a part. Adopt a certain dish to be made only at this special time of year. Or pass around a large chalice, reminiscent of the English Wassail bowl, pronouncing blessings or words of jest to the person who receives it from you.
However you do it, make the Solstice holiday a time of getting rid of that which weighed you down in the past and tying up the year’s loose ends. Find ways to symbolize the renewal that the New Year brings, and mark the time most joyously. Whether you celebrate alone, in a small close-knit group or as one of thousands, have a happy Solstice.