Santa claus and the Goddess


A dubious connection, you say, between Jolly Old Saint Nick and the Goddess? Oh, ho, ho! Although the Catholic Church would like us to believe that the generous old man in the red and white suit descended directly from someone dubbed Saint Nicholas, ostensibly a former bishop in the area of the Netherlands, who especially had the interests of children at heart, the traditions, the colors, all the contemporary associations we have with Santa Claus have pagan origins. The personage of Santa Claus as we know him today is really a veritable mish-mash of entities gleaned from Far Northern Shamanism (Lapland, Siberia, Scandinavia), the shaman priests of Pan/Herne, and the Goddess stories of Northern Europe all the way to Italy, the Mediterranean and even Egypt. Comparisons and synchronicities abound.

Beginning in the Far North, the word “shaman” is Siberian. From Lapland to Siberia, there were commonalities with the shamans of the villages or tribes. Their traditional garb was a red robe trimmed in white, with bells sewed on to announce their presence to the spirit world and to frighten unfriendly spirits. They carried bags of magical tools and tricks - like Santa’s pack of magic toys. People lived in huts crafted from wood and skins to repel the winter winds. These abodes had a chimney hole at the top to let out the smoke from the hearth fire, and a center pole as support structure. In the depths of winter, the shaman would shimmie up the pole to catch messages from the spirit upper world and bring them back down for the people. The smoke hole was considered the exit place of the shaman to the spirit world.

There are theories about the reasons for the red and white robe of the shaman. One is that red was the color of fire, the magical element that brought with it warmth and light to the cold northern lands with the long harsh winters. Some even think that the creation of fire was the sole ability of the shaman, who did not share that with the rest of the people. The knowledge of the kindling of fire was a gift to the shaman from the spirits of the land and the gods. Another is that red is the color of blood and that is what links all of life, the blood that courses through all, and the womb blood shed when there is a birth. Still another theory is that the red and white are the colors of the amanita muscaria mushroom, which grows under evergreen trees and was a sacred hallucinogenic element of religious ceremonies and celebrations. The shaman as local herbalist and healer would have been the gatherer and keeper of those sacred mushrooms. To distribute them at the Winter Solstice, she/he would have had to climb down the chimney pole from the top of the dwelling, having climbed up on the snow surrounding it to reach the top of the hut.

The early European cultures worshiped the god Pan, also called Herne. The shamans of these cultures costumed themselves to remind their worshippers of the aspects of the god: capes made from skins of fur, horns or antlers. He was joyful and mischievous at once, always the benevolent spirit of Nature, just as Santa is today, giving love and joy to all, but withholding presents from “bad“ children.

The Northern ancient peoples all believed in the concept of The World Tree: the Tree of Life that never dies but from whose branches and roots come all creatures. The North Star was also called the Pole Star and was recognized to be the central point of the sky around which all the constellations revolved. They believed it was directly above the World Tree, which was the Central Axis of the Universe. The top of the World Tree in fact touched the North Star and the spirit of the shaman would journey to the realm of the gods by climbing the Tree. It is easy to see how this could be connected to the placing of the shiny star at the top of the tree at Yule. And to the idea that Santa lives at the North Pole - originally the star, not the top of the world.

There are several figures, both male and female, who can be further associated with Santa. Odin, the chief Norse god depicted as having a flowing white beard, had a white stallion with eight legs on which he flew across the sky on Winter Solstice with presents for good children and punishments for bad. The Norse god Thor rode in a chariot, was quite jovial and was associated with the hearth fire - and all fire. The fireplace of a home was sacred to him.

Santa’s journey magically transversing the whole earth in one night can be linked to Osiris. The ancient Egyptians saw the constellation we know as the Big Dipper as Osiris in his chariot, which circled around the North Star in a 24 hour period.

Freyja also drove a chariot - mostly by cats, but sometimes drawn by white stags. She was the bestower of mercy and sustenance to the people in the dark of winter (among many other attributes).

The Northern European Goddess Holda (Hulda or Holle) is a Triple Goddess who as Maiden appears as beautiful and stately, flowing blonde hair shimmering and shining like the light of the sun, with a white, or red and white, goosedown cape. She flies through the night sky on the night of December 24th bringing gifts and joy. Her name means, “kind”, “merciful” or “gracious one”. It was She who determined who was “naughty or nice”. She rewarded the industrious and kind with good health and good fortune, and punished the lazy and selfish. An old Germanic tradition that survives is the laying out of an offering of a bowl of milk and food for Holda by the hearth fire on the eve of Her festival day, December 25th. The custom evolved to the setting of a place for Mother Holda at the table the meal before the family went to Christmas Mass, leaving her a bowl of milk when the family left the house, then carrying it outside to pour on the ground or leave for the animals after the family returned. This custom seems very close to the leaving of cookies and milk for Santa by the fire.

Holda is the Queen of Winter in Her Crone aspect. The snow flies as She shakes out Her cape or Her down comforter. Goddess of Prosperity and Generosity, gold coins drop from Her cape when She unfurls it. Holda traveled in the winds with the souls of the dead, mostly children and babies. She could be heard howling with grief as she bore the babies’ souls tenderly to Heaven.

Holda is connected to the 12 days of Christmas because Her festival day beginning on the evening of the 24th of December began a 12 day party that lasted to January 6th, the Festival day of Her sister Goddess Perchta, the winter hag Goddess. The Catholic Church assimilated both these post Solstice festivals in northern Europe as Christmas ending in Epiphany (commemorating the visit of the Magi to the baby Jesus - bringing gifts). In Her Mother aspect, Holda appears as the body of the World Tree - front half woman, back half tree - who gave birth to humankind. The name Holda, or Holle, is also associated with the holly plant or tree, a staple of Yule decoration and a plant of magical protection.

In Italy, La Befana is the old woman who brings gifts to all good children. Her origins, of course, predate Christianity. And in Sicily, an old woman named Strina brings gifts at Winter Solstice, a tradition continued from ancient Roman times celebrating Soltis Invicta (“the invincible sun“). Clearly, this “right jolly old elf” we have come to love as Santa Claus has many more origins in Goddess and Pagan spirituality than anything or anyone else. Merry Yule!

Originally published in GODDESS Magazine
c. Diane Horton

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