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8th Century Stone carving depicting
Odin and Sleipnir

That jolly old fellow with his rosy red cheeks, fur-lined ‘Coca cola’ scarlet robes and his eight fleet-footed reindeer, will soon be careening around the midwinter skies delivering presents and gifts to those who have been well behaved over the previous twelve months. The anti-Santa, Krampus, will have, in the run up to Christmas, caught hold of all the less well behaved and thrashed them with a bundle of reeds, kidnapped them in his sack and according to some traditions even feasting on them!

But, Father Christmas, Saint Nicholas, Santa, being a few of his names, will have the pleasure of spreading joy and happiness at this darkest time of the year. So where did these traditions come from and how did Father Christmas evolve through time? Let us look to ‘The North’ to get some idea of how he came to be.

Christmas itself was never celebrated until the fourth century when a Pope and a Roman Emperor decreed that the date of 25th December to be Christ’s birth date. (There is, however, nothing in any of the scriptures to indicate this was true. In fact the birth of Christ is said to be more likely around the start of October). So, Christmas itself is roughly 1700 years old. Other traditions pre-date this by many, many years; especially in the cold North.

Known by many names, such as ‘The Wanderer’, ‘One-Eye’ and ‘All-Father’, Odin was possibly the most important of all the Old Norse gods. And here lies the very origin of Father Christmas. Odin was also called ‘Jolnir’ meaning Yule-figure.

It was said that Odin, himself, would travel the skies at the midwinter astride his fabulous horse ‘Sleipnir’. This, the greatest of horses, with it’s eight powerful legs would carry Odin worldwide so that he could distribute gifts to the children. Also, Odin with his wife would lead the wild hunt through the winter nights with an increase in supernatural activity at this time; the dreaded ‘draugr’ who are malevolent ghosts, would stalk the earth in droves.

Further south, in Europe, Odin was re-imagined as Santa Klaus who, with his two helpers, would travel with their sleigh and eight reindeer basically replicating what Odin had been doing for centuries. Odin, the All-father and ‘Jolnir’ was around way before Santa Klaus. And, remember Sleipnir, the horse with eight legs? The eight reindeer represent each leg of Odin’s steed. And the significance of Santa Klaus’ two helpers are the two ravens ‘Hugin’ and ‘Munin’ which used to fly the worlds and bring back any news Odin needed to hear.

The Yule log, aside from being a cake, was one of the burning timbers which would never be allowed to burn out completely and the end of which would be saved to light the Yule fire the following year. So, in essence, there was always that eternal continuation of the Yule fire from year to year. The log would be kept in a special place in the household, bringing luck to the family for the coming year, until being used to relight the next fire for the Yule celebrations.

These celebrations lasting a full twelve days starting on 21st December which is the Winter Solstice and the shortest day. The original ‘twelve days of Christmas’ consisted of fun, games, feasting and drinking to commemorate the return of the sun during this dark time and the cycle of the year. Evergreen plants, boughs and even trees were brought inside the homes as a symbol of eternal life. Decorations would be made and hung, including the ‘julbok’. This is a straw effigy of a goat tied with red thread and sporting great horns. This represents the goats belonging to the god Thor whose chariot was drawn around the heavens by these animals known as ‘Toothgrinder’ and ‘Toothgnasher’.

Another Norse tradition at this time is the Yule ham. A traditional meat at this time and even this has meaning. In the great hall of Valhalla, where the slain warriors exist, a boar is eaten nightly and no matter how many warriors feast there is always enough pork meat to fill the hungriest appetites. The Yule ham either honours this boar, known as ‘Saehrimnir’, or the boar ridden by the another Norse god Frey called ‘Gullinbursti’. A majestic boar with bristles that would glow in the dark; his name means ‘Golden-mane’.

So, we can see where many of the traditions of modern Christmas came from. They have been adapted and interwoven into different concepts over the centuries but, fundamentally, it is possible to tell where the origins of this festive season came from.

Should we, therefore, hope to see Odin and Sleipnir in the night sky or look for Santa Klaus and his reindeer? Or do we be wary should we see Odin the Yule-figure leading the Wild Hunt and the Draugr stalking the land? Of course, the choice is yours but whatever you believe or follow and whichever path you take, have a great time this mid-winter and Christmas, with good health and best wishes for the season and the following year!

Merry Yule from Pipistrelle Art

Pronounciations:

Jolnir – Yol-neer

Julbok – Yool-bok

Draugr – Drow-ga

Sleipnir – Slayp-neer

Hugin – Hoogin

Munin – Moonin

Saehrimnir – Say-rim-neer

Gullinbursti – Gool-in-bursty