Who is Santa Claus?

by Susie Childerhouse, Learning Assistant

Since March, the way that most people interact with the world has altered greatly. In a pre-Covid world I was an infrequent user of social media. It flavoured my life with a tickle of taste…oooooh! A smattering of designer homes? Don’t mind if I do. An amuse-bouche of comedy cute animals? Oh, go on. It would be rude not to.

However, since March, the view through the tiny screen on my telephone has also become my main diet of information about the world. As a result I feel a responsibility to fact-check, to question, to explore the stories that I see. This has been fascinating but also distressing. Who knows what body blow of news is going to assail me next?

So, last month, I was relieved that a burning issue in my house had been resolved. A video clip of Simon Coveney, the Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs, laid out the restrictions around Santa Claus’ travel plans this year. It was noted that Santa’s travel is seen as ‘essential travel’ and so exempt from any 14-day isolation period that you may expect. Santa can also go in and out of children’s homes doing his essential work on the proviso that children don’t stay up at night as he will need to social distance. My seven-year-old daughter nodded sagely when I told her the news. She had been asking about whether it might just be wise to ask him not to come this year. It might not be safe for him. We talked about whether he was human at all – I’m not sure. Is he a kind of elf? If so, maybe he wouldn’t be able to catch Coronavirus anyway. One for Dr. David Waterhouse, Senior Curator of Natural History, I thought. He knows everything.

Earthenware teapot in the form of Santa Claus, by James Sadler and Sons, produced for Christmas 1939 (Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery)

The whole thing did get me thinking… who is Santa Claus? I knew he had links to Christianity – the name is a giveaway. Santa Claus – from the Dutch ‘Sintaklaas’ – is a shortened version of Saint Nicholas and has been one of is monikers since the mid 1760s. But is there more?

Saint Nicholas was once a 4th century Bishop born into what was Greece, now a part of southern Turkey. There are many hints to his generosity and kindness: leaving gifts for children in their shoes;  throwing bags of money through the windows of impoverished sisters; resurrecting chopped up children hidden in pickling tubs – that one never made it onto any festive cards that I know of. But the figure of Santa Claus seems bigger. Deeper. Older.

So, I had a poke about through the notes of my wonderful colleague Bethan Holdridge who is Assistant Curator of Social History at Strangers’ Hall: the beautiful hodgepodge of rooms, undercrofts and the magnificent Great Hall that is also a sister museum to Norwich Castle as part of Norfolk Museums Service.

I found Bethan’s notes on the Roman feast of Saturnalia worth investigating – it does sound like the goings on over the festive season. Feasting, presents and games were a major feature of this festival celebrating Saturn, the god of agriculture. I can see the importance of carousing and merrymaking in the depths of the cold months. Saturnalia ran from 17th – 23rd of December, covering the winter solstice. What better time to celebrate the hopeful return of the god of greenery, life and regeneration than when he seems his least present? The main gift giving day, the Sigillaria, was on the 19th of December. It seems that children won out best on the present front, receiving gifts of toys and games, although adults might receive small trinkets and wax or clay figurines.

Found at the site of a Roman kiln in Petney, Norfolk in 1992 this pottery representation of a bird may have once been the cherished toy of a Roman child. (Lynn Museum)

Children had a chance to be the boss for the day with a tradition of reversing the roles. A mock-ruler was chosen to oversee the revels. Role reversal has been a winter tradition that survived well into Tudor times. A bean would be placed in a Christmas pudding. Whoever had the bean in their serving became the Lord of Misrule and could preside over the festivities. Elizabeth I, beset with paranoia of challenge to her throne, banned the practice, but a shadow of it lies in the placing of a lucky silver sixpence in a pudding today. These might be linked to Christmas, but to Santa Claus? I can see links between Santa and Saturn – it’s the beard. And the greenery, I suppose. Saturn is the one in charge of when things start to grow again. Santa Claus usually has a wisp of ivy or a sprig of holly somewhere about his person. Maybe that is tenuous. Saturn (or his statue) would have been bound in wool for the rest of the year and symbolically released for the festival ready to explode into the revelries displaying all his smoothest moves. Not very Santa, I might say.

Where else might he have come from? Well – there is always the Vikings. Now, this sounds like a stretch, however, the one-eyed All Father, AKA Odin, might have quite an important role to play in my search.

At first glance, Odin looks like your regular revenge-happy, raven-whispering leader of Norse Mythology. He is better known for Valhalla, the hall reserved for warriors who died in battle than for toyshops in the North Pole… however, however, however…

Odin was known for leaving gifts in the shoes of children around the time of the winter solstice. The Wild Hunt – a cacophonous cavalcade of elves, spirits and ghostly hunters had Odin at the head, racing through the skies on his eight-legged horse, Sleipnir. The hunt would seek those that deserved gifts and blessings or punishments and curses depending on whether they were favoured by Odin. A naughty or nice list, some might say? If you squint and look at an elderly bearded man on an eight-legged horse racing through the skies followed by a wild train of spectres, it could look a bit a herd of reindeer and with a squad of helpful Elves don’t you think? Maybe in a nightmarish way. Before Clement Clarke Moore’s icon-making poem, T’was the Night before Christmas in 1822, Santa Claus was often depicted as riding a horse, so that helps with the comparison, although it is mentioned in the Eddic poem, Sigdrifuma, that Sleipnir does sometimes pull a sleigh.

Asgårdsreien [The Wild Hunt of Odin] (1872) by Peter Nicolai Arbo, from the collection of The National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design in Oslo.

Then, there are the elves – Odin’s army of elves and dwarves who make gifts for him to bestow on his favourites. They made Draupnir, the magical golden bracelet that replicates itself so Odin would have a never-ending stream of bracelets. They made Mjolnir, Thor’s mighty hammer. They made (and this is my favourite) Sif’s hair after mischievous Loki accidently wished it off of her head on a drunken night out. So, Odin doesn’t want for gifts to bestow on those on the good list.

And, yes, often Odin has a beard and a cloak.

There is one other figure that could be added in the mix – older than both Odin and Saturn. And that is The Green Man. This nature god survived from a pre-Roman time. He is stealthy, you see. He won’t be dancing the night away with his Roman party-animals, or charging about on multi-legged creatures followed by a howling battalion of spectres. The Green Man’s longevity seems to be in his ability to fit in.

Green Man roof boss at Norwich Cathedral

Look closely in the carved foliage of pillars and spandrels in medieval churches and you might catch a glimpse of The Green Man quietly observing the world from his camouflage of leaves and berries. You can find him on a 12th century mercy seat in King’s Lynn Minster. There is a beautiful example in the cloisters in Norwich Cathedral (above) that would have been completed by the early 14th century after damage in the Tombland Riots of 1272. There’s a terrifying one in the 15th Century St Peter and St Paul in Salle – the parish of the Boleyn family at the time. In the 16th century, the Green Man was still with us. This time on the carved wooden bench in St Margaret of Antioch, Cley-next-the-Sea. He made it through to the 19th century carved into the Victorian wooden pulpit of Blakeney’s St Nicholas. This is the silent side of Santa. The one that can’t be seen by children on Christmas Eve. The Green Man has the signature beard and cloak – entwined with the evergreen emblems of winter – holly and ivy. He is the guardian of lost children, the healer of sick animals. He is responsible for keeping the lifeforce of nature sustained throughout the coldest, wintery months of the year when all seems dead. Is that not the job of all these wintery characters?

Maybe Santa Claus is all of them. Maybe he is just another guise for this mysterious figure. Whatever he is, he is important. Maybe a way of keeping our lifeforce warmed with cheer and kindness when all seems dead around us. Well, he’s been around an awfully long time, so he’s doing something right. Just remember though, two metres, as he still needs to observe social distancing.

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