The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005
The Horned One and The Devil
According to legend, witches fly through the night sky, sometimes on brooms but traditionally also sometimes on animals or in chariots drawn by animals. In some regions, among the times of year most associated with witches’ flight is the period immediately following the Winter Solstice, corresponding to what the Norse called Yuletide. Witches traditionally fly up and down chimneys; in some areas, fires are kept burning all night to keep witches out (or in).
Santa Claus flies through the air during Yuletide, too, in a sleigh pulled by antlered reindeer. His assistants are elves. In parts of Europe, although not in America, Santa Claus is accompanied by a dark, threatening “helper” who often resembles a horned goat spirit. Santa Claus, too, goes up and down chimneys, although his arrival—unlike the witches’—is eagerly awaited.
The Yuletide night sky is a busy place: Santa Claus, his reindeer, and the witches aren’t alone. The Wild Hunt flies through the night sky during Yuletide, too, often led by that whitebearded old spirit Odin. Good Christians were advised to avoid the Wild Hunt at all cost, to stay inside and hide until it had passed.
Once upon a time, night-riding witch-goddesses like Perchta visited homes during Yuletide, expecting to receive food offerings like pancakes or dumplings. Eventually during the witchcraze, households that left offerings to Perchta were charged with witchcraft, arrested, and destroyed.
On the other hand, to this very day, households make a ritual of leaving cookies and milk (or something stronger) for Santa Claus. Many consider this a charming, wholesome custom. What’s going on here? Why is a saint lauded for behavior forbidden to witches? Who is Santa Claus anyway?
Santa Claus was unknown to early Christians. Incorporation of Santa Claus into Christmas festivals was considered disreputable, semi-Pagan and actively discouraged until the twentieth century. His association with Christmas remains controversial—fundamentalist Christians still reject him, recognizing that Santa Claus is clearly a Pagan importation. Fundamentalist Christian websites frequently point out that all one has to do is rearrange one letter to transform “Santa” into “Satan” or vice-versa.
Modern Christmas celebrations incorporate many Pagan traditions including gift-giving, Christmas trees, the Yule log, mistletoe, and Santa Claus.
Ostensibly, Santa Claus is an affectionate nickname for St Nicholas, a beatified third-century bishop from what is now Myra, Turkey. He is among those saints now considered apocryphal by the Church. It is generally believed that beneath the mask of bearded St Nicholas lies the bearded Greek sea god, Poseidon. (Another suggestion is that St Nick was assigned dominion over what was once associated with Artemis/Diana of Ephesus.)
If St Nick is Poseidon, then who is Santa Claus? Various theories suggest who hides beneath the mask:
The horned god Hermes carries a sack in one hand, indicating that he is a deity who provides for his devotees, who brings them gifts. Santa Claus is the modern “deity” with a sack of gifts. Horned spirits survived within Christianity under the guise of Santa Claus. These days, Santa Claus no longer wears his horns on his head but remains closely identified with his herd of horned reindeer.
Christmas corresponds in time with the Roman festival of the Saturnalia, characterized by feasting, happy celebrating, and giving gifts to children. The Saturnalia honored Saturn, an aged god who presided over a long-ago golden age. Saturn is a jolly old man with a long white beard who distributes gifts and presides over merriment.
Odin flies through the air at Yuletide. He is a world traveler; once upon a time, his pet ravens covered the globe every day just like Santa Claus allegedly does at Christmas. Santa’s associations with reindeer may recall Odin’s sojourn with Saami shamans.
Santa’s role as leader of the elves however also indicates another Nordic spirit, Freyr, Lord of Fertility. Freyr is the Elven King; the elves work for him. Among Freyr’s sacred attributes is the pine tree.
Perhaps the reindeer are the key: reindeer are closely identified with the Saami people who live in the Arctic, close to the North Pole that is now so associated with Santa Claus. The Saami are traditionally nomadic reindeer herders. They were also renowned throughout Northern Europe for their powerful shamanic traditions. Saami shamans soul-journey, often utilizing chimneys.
In parts of Europe, St Nicholas doesn’t resemble red-suited, reindeer-driving Santa Claus. Instead men masquerade as St Nicholas by donning a bishop’s traditional clothing and hat. This St Nick is dignified and devoutly Christian. Whether a child is deemed “good” often depends upon obedience and religious compliance. However, St Nicholas is inevitably accompanied by an assistant who is clearly Pagan and frequently horned. St Nicholas officially represents the Church; his partner stands in for Satan. The partner has charge of “bad” children and may beat them (literally), give them coal or take them away, ostensibly to Hell.
In Holland, Black Peter (Zwarte Piet in Dutch) is, similar to Krampus (see page 570), Santa’s helper. He is now most frequently envisioned as a small black boy, dressed in ornate medieval clothing; he represents a Moor. White men masquerade as Black Peter in blackface. However, this was not the ancient original vision of Black Peter. Black Peter was once envisioned as a shaman. He dressed in rough, ragged clothes and wore a fur hat topped with horns. He carried a huge sack on his back that often has a pine tree sticking out, similar to the phallic pine logs once carried in Dionysian processions.
Black Peter is depicted carrying small human figures in his sack. However these weren’t initially dolls for good little girls: they represented babies to be born in the New Year, given as gifts of fertility. “Black” Peter was covered with charcoal and soot, not because he was diabolical, but because black was recalled as the color of fertility, as it was for the ancient Egyptians.
If the original Black Peter was cleaned up, his soot removed, his horned hat traded in for a clean red hat but his big bag of gifts retained, he looks remarkably like Santa Claus.
Under Santa Claus’ jolly demeanor may also lurk old Pagan frost gods like the Russian Morozko, also known as Father Frost, or perhaps the Nordic Holler, consort of the witchgoddess Hulda, also associated with Yule traditions and the Wild Hunt. (See DIVINE WITCH: Hulda.)
Modern American Santa Claus derives from the traditions of eighteenth- and nineteenthcentury German immigrants to the United States. His costume hadn’t yet been standardized; instead of his present red and white suit, he frequently dressed in animal skins or tattered rags. Yes, he carried a bag of treats, but he also carried a whip or a stick and a broom. He was soot-faced and carried jingle bells. This shamanic figure resembles those on Dutch Speculaas Poppen cookie molds (see FOOD AND DRINK: Yule Cakes).
Modern red-suited Santa Claus is a creation of the Coca-Cola Company. The figure spread worldwide in 1932 as part of an advertising campaign. (Some perceive that his bright red and white suit is a reference to Amanita muscaria mushrooms; although this may sound farfetched, one does recall that the original Coca-Cola formula incorporated coca and kola, two botanicals associated with shamanic traditions, so who knows? Amanita muscaria spirits are reputedly red and white, as are the mushrooms.)
Further Reading: When Santa Was a Shaman by Tony van Renterghem (Llewellyn Publications, 1995) and Santa, Last of the Wild Men by Phyllis Siefker (McFarland and Company, 1997).
See also Chimney Sweep, Hermes, Krampus; BOTANICALS:Amanita muscaria; CALENDAR: Yule; DIVINE WITCH: Hermes, Odin.