Most Pagans are quite familiar with the fact that many of the so-called ‘Christmas’ traditions have their origins from ancient polytheistic cultures and their festivities such as Saturnalia, Yule etc. This even includes Santa Claus.
In the climes of the ancient Northern European peoples–by now they’d be snowbound and living an existence where they primarily just stayed inside their communal dwellings. This, especially in ancient times, would pose a number of health problems. With many people constantly dwelling together under one roof, if illness arrived among them it was quick to spread. (We’ve all seen how when a virus is going around work or school, many people end up catching it). Health of course is also impacted by the limited diet available of whatever food could be stored for the winter. Afterall they didn’t have a grocery store that imported strawberries from South America out-of-season.
Beyond this, if we think of the cycle of seasons there are classical understandings for the seasons. Spring is a time of new life and new growth, summer is a time of bounty and the peak of life, autumn is the time of harvest as life begins to decline, and winter is the time where the land lies fallow and classically is associated with death. While death did walk among people at all times, it was in winter that people were the most susceptible. They had to contend with disease, a limited food supply, pests that could spoil the food supply and make it unfit for consumption. The cold itself was an enemy as well. Even in the modern era, when bad winter storms blow through and the power is knocked out those most susceptible, the old, the infirm, and the very young can still die from the cold.
Into these associations with death we see stories about the Wild Hunt. While traditions may vary as to when the Wild Hunt began and ended, the yuletide was usually the time when the Wild Hunt was viewed to be at the peak of its activity. In some areas the Wild Hunt was led by Odin, in other areas it was led by a Goddess such as Frau Holle (aka Holda), or the Goddess Berchta (aka Perchta).
In the skaldic poem Óðins nöfn we see Odin called Jolnir, which means ‘yule figure’. In other skaldic poems he is given various names that mean ‘longbeard’. (Santa has a longbeard doesn’t he?). There are numerous folk traditions that arose where treats for Sleipnir were left in stockings (carrot, straw and sugar) to appease Sleipnir and Odin when the hunt rode. In exchange Odin was said to leave behind gifts or candy. In other areas, instead of stockings filled with treats, we see shoes were left out (like with the Christianized appearance of Saint Oski’s Day).
We see the use of the stockings progress in Iceland with the Yule Lads. Originally, the yule lads were something of a harassing, mischievous plague uypon the population. While not as scary as hordes of the dead in the Wild Hunt, you certainly didn’t want to garner their attention. Today they’ve merged more with ‘Santa’ and are now known for filling stockings either with nice rewards or items to punish those who have misbehaved.
While Odin is usually the God most strongly associated with the Santa mythos, other scholars have posited that Thor may have also be connected to it as well. While Odin was a popular deity, Thor eventually rose to cultic prominence late in the Viking Age. Odin may have had Sleipnir, but Thor had a team of goats he drove around with. He was also known for being a pretty jovial deity, a friend of all humans. His sacred symbol, mjollnir was a hammer, also the tool of choice for Santa Claus. In Sweden, children would eagerly await Jultomten, a gnome whose sleigh is drawn by a pair of yule goats, and Thor also had a pair of goats.
When we look to depictions of Frau Holle, we see clear folk traditions that point to her rewarding those who have done their work, or punishing those who haven’t completed their year’s worth of spinning before the start of Yule. In other parts of ancient Germania, we see the Goddess Perchta in prominence (instead of Frau Holle). Like Frau Holle, Perchta also has a seasonal procession at this time of year. In her case on her special feast day that fell during yuletide (possibly Twelfth Night), people were supposed to eat dumplings and herrings, and if they broke that ‘fast’ with any other food, she was said to punish them by gutting them and stuffing them full of straw. Like Frau Holle, there are also rewards/punishments for those who did/not finish their spinning for the year. Among Perchta’s stories, are also stories of people who had done good by her as she traveled the countryside on her night, would receive gold coins in their shoes. So again we have a connection to gifts given in stockings/shoes.
This concept of misbehaving, begins to become a theme. The very origin of the gift-giving tradition becomes a reward for having done your work and behaved in the past year, or you’ll be punished, which sounds like our modern concept of Santa’s naughty or nice list. If we examine another similar figure, we see Lussi who led her Wild-Hunt like horde called the Lussiferda. On Lussinatta, folk traditions have Lussi coming down chimneys to steal misbehaving children.
Outside of yule specific traditions, giving gifts was a very specialized means of reinforcing community bonds between. Most often gifts were exchanged from the top of the socio-economic tier down. Since the winter months meant people were indoors so much, it became a time where I’m sure human patience was being rubbed thin amongst your family members, which meant that a misbehaving child very quickly drove you to your wits end. But also, since there was little work to do in the fields, it was the only time of year to work on creating other household items. For women, this applied most directly to textiles as we see illustrated with the folk traditions surrounding Frau Holle.
It also meant a chance to craft a gift for someone you may not have the time to do so during the rest of the year. There are some folk traditions that have survived to the present day, where the gift wasn’t so much material, as it was a poem specifically drafted in honor of a person. Since the cultures that comprise the Northern Tradition prized wit and intelligence, as well as poetry… it would have been viewed as a good gift indeed. Since part of the yuletide tradition, was to brave the dark and cold, and visit your family, friends, and others in the community… the gifts could become part of a happy note to culminate the visit on.
In the Celtic tradition we see the time of the dead most closely associated with Samhain, but in the Northern Tradition we see it more prominently associated with Yule. Just as we see in Samhain a correlation between the use of masks with the belief of the wandering dead or evil spirits, we see a similar tradition evolve around the yuletide in connection with the Goddess Perchta, and the horde she led on the Wild Hunt known as the Perchten. These would later be re-enacted by community members donning these costumes during the yuletide in a procession led by the Goddess. Some were beautiful (Schönperchten) which brought good fortune and others were ugly (Schiachperchten) which drove out evil spirits. This processional is no doubt part of the historical influence that gave rise to Krampus as part of the Santa Claus mythos.