Don't Take Odin out of Yule Dec 19, 2017 3:37:46 GMT -5
Post by Graveyardbride on Dec 19, 2017 3:37:46 GMT -5
Don’t Take Odin out of Yule
Santa Claus owes his very existence to the old Norse myths. He’s changed a lot through the centuries, but his origins in Scandinavia and Northern Europe cannot be denied. Here’s how Santa emerged from the lands of the Vikings, exchanging the Norse god Odin’s more terrifying traits for those of a plump, chuckling fellow of eternal good cheer.
Odin was chief among the Norse pagan deities. (He is still remembered in the day of the week named for him, Wednesday, Woden’s Day.) He was spiritual, wise and capricious. In centuries past, when the midwinter Yule celebration was in full swing, Odin was both a terrifying specter and an anxiously awaited bringer of gifts, soaring through the skies on his flying eight-legged white horse, Sleipnir.
Back in the days of the Vikings, Yule took place around the time of the Winter Solstice when gods and ghosts went soaring above the rooftops on the Wild Ride, the dreaded Oskoreia. One of Odin’s many names was Jólnir (master of Yule). Astride Sleipnir, he led the airport hunt, accompanied by his sword-maiden Valkyries and a few other deities and assorted spirits of the dead. The motley crew would fly over the villages and countryside, terrifying any who happened to be out and about at night. But Odin would also deliver toys and candy. Children would fill their boots with straw for Sleipnir and set them by the hearth. Odin would slip down chimneys and fire holes, leaving gifts.
Centuries passed and the world changed and when the old pagan traditions were gradually being replaced by Christianity – which happened centuries later in the north than the rest of Europe – honoring Odin was forbidden. Yule was rescheduled to coincide with the Christian celebrations and Odin was pushed out of the picture. First the chief god was replaced by the goodly Christian Saint Nicholas, a fourth-century Greek bishop. Always depicted wearing a red cloak, he became known as the patron saint of giving in most parts of Europe – but not Scandinavia. He had helpers who would report on which children were good: he’d bring gifts to the good kids, and beware the punishments dealt out to those who were bad!
After the Reformation, Nick and the other saints became forgotten in all the Protestant countries of Europe except Holland. There he morphed into Sinter Klaas, a kind and wise old man with a white beard, white garments and red cloak. On his birthday, December 6, St. Nicholas Day, he’d ride through the skies, landing on the roofs of houses on his eight-legged white horse, delivering gifts through the chimney, much the same as his predecessor, Odin.
Seventeenth-century Dutch immigrants brought their tradition of Sinter Klaas to America and he morphed into Santa Claus, a portly, jolly man with a white beard and red coat carrying a bagful of toys. This image became popular in the U.S. in the 19th century following the publication of the poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” by Clement C. Moore. The eight-legged horse was replaced for eight flying reindeer and while there are reindeer (caribou) in North America, they are also native to Scandanavia.
Santa’s image grew more popular through Coca Cola advertisements in the 1930s created by artist Haddon Sundblom, the son of Finnish immigrants. Before Sundblom reinvented him, Santa had been a tall, wizardly-looking fellow, much more like Odin. The Finns held on to a more ancient image of the Yule master for centuries. The Joulupukki or “Yule Buck” is originally a pagan tradition. He is connected to Odin and said to wear red leather pants and a fur-trimmed red leather coat. But Sundblom also remembered the jovial Dutch Santa Claus with his red cloak and long white beard.
As for the elves in Santa’s North Pole workshop who work all year long making Christmas toys, it was Odin who was the lord of Alfheim, home of the elves. All magical weapons and jewelry of the gods and goddesses were fashioned by highly-skilled dwarves, who dwelled deep within the earth.
Then there’s the Yule goat that brought gifts until the 19th century. According to one theory, the celebration of the goat is connected to the worship of the Norse god Thor, who rode the sky in a chariot drawn by two goats. Today, the Yule goat in Scandinavia is usually nothing more than a Christmas ornament made out of straw and bound with red ribbons. In the 19th century, as American Santa Claus traditions were spreading to Scandinavia, the Nordic julenisse began to deliver Christmas presents, replacing the Yule Goat.
In Norway, it is said the Julenisse was born under a rock in Vindfangerbukta north of the town of Drøbak on the Oslofjord, several hundred years ago. Today, Drøbak is considered the premier Norwegian Christmas town, with its popular Christmas house or Julehuset located next to the town hall. Busloads of people travel to see the julenisse, trolls, elves and gnomes in the house, and while most tourists probably don’t know it, these are the image descendants of the one-eyed god Odin.
Scholars of folklore cannot deny the legacy of Odin and his transformation into new versions of Yule gift-bringers. Margaret Baker, author of Discovering Christmas Customs and Folklore, says “The appearance of Santa Claus or Father Christmas, whose day is the 25th of December, owes much to Odin, the old blue-hooded, cloaked, white-bearded Giftbringer of the north, who rode the midwinter sky on his eight-footed steed Sleipnir, visiting his people with gifts.”
The mythical figures associated with the Yule season evolved from ancient pagan beliefs and folklore and spark the imagination during the longest, darkest days of the year. For Christians, this light emanates from a babe in a manger in far-off Bethlehem, worlds away from the Norse gods, the elves, the goats and the wild hunt. In Norway, when people greet each other with God Jul – Good Yule – the origins of the Christmas observance becomes the star of the season.
Source: Judith Gabriel Vinje, The Norwegian American Weekly, December 18, 2011.