Solstice, Santa and a New (Old) Winter Narrative
Have you ever pondered the origins of winter traditions? On some cold, dark nights I wondered what my ancestors would have held sacred, and how the low-hanging sun in the southern sky would have factored into their stories and rituals. How could I share a meaningful narrative with my young children that was rooted in the changing of the seasons, and that spoke beyond the consumerism that too often dominates this time of year? A letter from Santa began to unfold in my mind.
This time of year brings so many converging energies. There is the winter solstice marking the onset of a new season, culminating with the longest night of the year and the shortest day. There are Christmas trees, stockings, holly, and wreaths. And of course, there are abundant stories of Santa Claus and his eight reindeer in tow.
The kids of course grab onto the Santa story. One year, my sons spotted him at the holiday parade and yelled out their wish lists. The obsession with gift-getting can eclipse the deeper meanings of the season. On one dark night near the Solstice and Christmas, one of my sons wouldn’t sleep. He was awake looking for the reindeer that were sure to land on the roof. I told him to go back to sleep and that these nights are the longest and darkest of the year. “Let yourself dream a special dream about that,” I say. This year, they will find a small rolled-up letter from Santa in their stockings. It will go something like this.
Dear Children: Here is a secret about my origins.
Children, you should know a few things about where I come from. Long before I was called Santa Claus, I was called by other names. My origins are a bit mysterious, but one thing is certain. Throughout the Northern Hemisphere at the Winter Solstice (and then Christmas), there have been sacred men presiding over the winter festivities. Most of us were older, and many of us had long white beards.
If you lived in Russia, you would have heard about Grandfather Frost or Father Frost, and he would often be seen carrying a staff and wearing robes of red or blue. In the Netherlands, you would have heard about Sinter Klaus, where most people believe my name comes from. Sinter Klaus is also known as Saint Nicholas, a 4th Century Christian saint who purportedly had a legendary habit of gift-giving.
If you lived in Ireland, there was the ‘Holly King,’ and you would have found him wearing red and green. Why red and green? You might ask. In winter, the dark green of evergreens and the bright red of holly berries always brought a bit of cheer to long, cold winters. In northern Europe, ‘Yule’ or ‘Jul’ was a popular solstice time feast, and many celebrated the season by bringing evergreen boughs and then trees into their homes. It was a time for feasting, candles, and fires. There was even a sacred man called Jolnir (meaning ‘Yule bringer’), who also had a long beard, just like me.
Dear Children: Did you know I may be related to the Norse gods Woden and Thor?
Children, you should also know that my origins may be a bit more mysterious than initially meets the eye. Did you know I have surprising things in common with the Germanic and Norse gods Odin or Woden? You see, I want you to know about my names that are older than Santa Claus. When stories and traditions are ancient and passed down for hundreds or even thousands of years, it is hard to discern exactly where and how they began. Many people think that I am indeed Saint Nicholas, who loved giving coins and gifts to children. But actually one of my first names was likely Woden. And, did you know that Wednesday, or ‘Woden’s Day,’ is a namesake?
Woden was one of the main gods in Norse mythology and is an earlier name of Odin, who presided over wisdom, magic, poetry, and conflict. He is said to have created the runes the Norse used for writing. During Yule time or the Solstice feast, he often led what was called the “Wild Hunt,” where he could be seen flying through the air. Two books from Iceland, the Poetic Edda, compiled in the 13th century from earlier sources, and the Prose Edda, also written in the 13th century, describe him as riding an eight-legged horse named Sleipnir that could leap great distances. Today, people tell stories about Santa being pulled by eight reindeer. I’ve often wondered if the number eight originated from an old eight-legged mythical horse?
Odin and Woden are also described in ancient poems as “long-bearded,” just like me. Phyllis Siefker, who wrote a book about me called Santa Claus: The Last of the Wild Men, notes how children would place their boots filled with carrots, straw, or sugar near the chimney for Woden’s horse Sleipnir to eat. Woden showed gratitude for this act by replacing the horse’s food with gifts or candy. Sound familiar? Indeed, when you hang stockings or put ‘booties’ out to be filled with surprises, you’re following a very old tradition. Nowadays, plates of cookies or a glass of milk is a perfect gift for me and my reindeer, and some of you still do leave carrots too.
Some people also connect me to another Norse God, Thor, who was also often seen flying through the air, pulled by two magical goats named Thunder and Lightening (or, Donder and Blitzen). Perhaps you’ve heard those names before? Yes! Indeed, I too have a Donder and Blitzen who pull my sleigh. Now, Donder and Blitzen are reindeer, joined by the likes of Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Cupid, and Comet. (And in recent centuries, of course, Rudolph).
Have you ever wondered about the mysterious origins of so many of us riding through the skies at night, pulled by animals? Of course, there are the names thunder, lightning, and comet to provide clues. And if you ever have the good fortune of sitting outside on a cold, winter night in the northern hemisphere when the northern lights are flickering across the sky, your imagination might light up like the bright colors that move like sparkling curtains forming the aurora borealis. It is no coincidence that the long hours of darkness in the winter months of December through March offer the best time to catch sight of this most amazing natural phenomenon.
Dear Children: In case you are wondering why this is important…
You might be wondering why this is important. I’ll tell you. These stories and traditions have traveled a long way to reach you today, and while they have changed quite a bit over the years, they have survived in our memories for a very, very long time. Remarkably, these surviving stories that you hear today point to an indigenous past, conjuring the traditions of long-ago people who celebrated the change of seasons as special and important. And, if we pay attention to the surviving narrative, we can uncover a lesson about the importance of wonder as well as joyful generosity.
The wise, old men of winter can serve as gatekeepers, reminding us of the sparkle of snow and the magic of frost. They can remind us to notice the gifts of the season, like the evergreen trees that miraculously herald enduring life and vitality in a time when darkness reigns and when so many other gifts of nature have completed their cycles of life. The winter men of stories have been here to usher us into a new season with a sense of celebration, spontaneity, and sacredness: lighting up the sky, surprising us with gifts, decking halls with boughs of holly.
These days it is difficult to see the night sky and let it shape our stories and imaginations. We risk losing the sense of wonder inspired by sitting under a blanket of stars listening to stories on cold, winter nights. And the old stories risk losing some of their luster, especially if we don’t take time to re-imagine them with meaning in the context of today’s times.
Unfortunately, many are only paying attention to “getting” things, rather than giving. I have become associated almost solely with wish lists, toys, and tracking whether you are “naughty or nice.” I no longer preside with my grand authority over the sacred entrance of winter: my long beard a reminder of old age and wisdom during a time of transition. But, if we can slow down and take pause, we might be privy to letting the season do its transformative work on us.
I, Santa, am actually indeed one of the last old ‘wild men’ of story. You need my deeper meanings. Enter my realm of magic and imagination, where snow covers the world in a bright, twinkling luster. Remember that winter is traditionally a time to set intentions for how you want to live: not only what you want to get. Underground, seeds are incubating. For us too, this is a time to reflect and incubate, considering what treasures we will bring forth in spring.
And most of all, children, this is a time when you can partake in creating magic. Follow my lead! Enlist your own fellow human elves to spread joy. Surprise someone, even a stranger. Do kind things, and bestow generosity on others. Practice being happy with what you have and celebrate the great gifts of life: love, family, the wonders of nature, and the return of the sunlight. In true Santa fashion, remember to give life a joyful wink, even during these long and cold nights.