A cover story published by Down To Earth’s sister publication in December last year delves into the man and the myth
This was first published by Down To Earth’s sister publication in December last year. Here is the original link
As we approach the end of 2021, it is time for all of us—especially you—to take a break. These past two years have been exhausting. There has been sadness all around. You have been forced to attend classes on your phones and computers.
We should not let our guards down but perhaps now we all can relax a bit. And at the right time too. For it is that time of the year again when a rotund, pot-bellied man visits you in the dead of the night and leaves behind gifts.
Yes. It is ho, ho, ho time when there is the delicious chill of winter and the huddle of warm clothing beckons. It is a time when Santa Claus comes calling as the world celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ.
But have you ever wondered who Santa Claus really is? And why does he do what he does?
Santa is not a real person. Yes, sorry to break it to you but that is the truth. However, you can take heart when I say that he is based in part on people who did live… and also on some figures from mythology.
The primary inspiration for Santa is somebody called Odin. For those of you who might have watched the Hollywood movie Thor in 2011, you may remember Sir Anthony Hopkins playing a character with this name. Odin (or Woden or Wotan) is the king of Gods in Germanic and Norse mythology like Lord Indra in Hindu mythology. (Psst: ‘Norse’ means relating to ancient Norway or Scandinavia. And just in case you don’t know ‘Scandinavia’ also, it refers to Norway, Sweden, and Denmark.)
Odin is depicted with a long beard. In Norse myth, he leads the gods, until he is killed by the huge wolf, Fenrir. He was killed on the day of Ragnarok, which signifies the end of an epoch and the start of a new one. Renewal. Rebirth. It is something like the Hindu 'Pralay'.
So, how is the legend of Odin linked to Christmas? Well, as you know, Europe, like other areas, was also tribal once. There were a host of tribes in that continent. Among them were the Germanic peoples. They played a key role in the collapse of the Roman Empire. However, soon, they adopted the Empire’s single biggest identity marker: the Christian faith.
Before they turned Christian, many Germanic tribes, especially the Norse of Scandinavia used to celebrate a so-called ‘pagan’ festival. Every year, around mid-winter, or the beginning of the winter solstice, the longest night of winter, the community used to congregate in their temples. Here, they brought grain, ale (a type of beer), and sacrificial animals. The animals were sacrificed in the name of Odin and their meat eaten along with ale. Prayers were offered for peace and a good harvest as well.
Europe and Scandinavia’s Christianisation was a long process. In many areas, non-Christian, pagan customs persisted for a long time even after people became Christian. In many areas, pagan customs were, in fact, re-branded as Christian ones to appeal to converts.
And so, my friends, the pagan festival of Yule came to be celebrated as Christmas. And the god worshipped in Yule, Odin, became the first prototype for Santa Claus. However, the story does not end with Odin.
There was a second inspiration for Santa: Saint Nicholas, the Greek Christian bishop of Myra in what is now modern-day Turkey.
Saint Nicholas was well known for his kindness towards all, especially children. According to legend, he left gifts for children in secret. Sounds familiar?
Saint Nicholas soon evolved into a legendary figure in various European countries. In England, for instance, he was Father Christmas. And in the Netherlands, he was Sinterklaas.
The Dutch established the colony of New Amsterdam in 1624 AD. It was part of the larger colony of New Netherland on the eastern seaboard of North America. Forty years later, in 1664, the English took New Amsterdam as well as New Netherland and renamed it New York. Dutch settlers had brought their culture to New Netherland, including the legend of Sinterklaas or Saint Nicholas. In later years, it was mostly forgotten. Till 1812.
It was in 1812 when Washington Irving, the author of Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, published his book A History of New York.
Irving’s work rekindled interest in Sinterklaas, at the same time giving it a more Anglo-American character. Another person who moulded the modern image of Santa Claus was political cartoonist Thomas Nast.
In the years since, more and more nuggets were added and the figure of Santa Claus was fleshed out and reinforced every year through popular media. And since the United States has been the dominant power in the world for most of the 20th century, we all now look forward eagerly to Santa coming every year down the chimney.
But the Santa story holds other lessons for all of us too, my friends.
Have you noticed the landscape that Santa moves in? There is pristine, almost spotless snow everywhere. There are reindeer-drawn sleighs. The sky, where depicted, is clear blue or filled with twinkling stars.
But what is the reality that stares us in the face? Since the Industrial Revolution began in 1750, humanity has been digging its own grave. In our insatiable quest for ‘progress’ and ‘development’, we have cut down forests, wiped out wildlife, and poisoned our land, rivers and oceans with chemicals and plastic. Climate change has followed inexorably. The snow which Santa treads is disappearing as glaciers melt; in many places, we witness a layer of black soot on the snow—a result of our incessant burning of fossil fuels.
Today, deadly hurricanes, cyclones, and typhoons occur in all parts of the world with increasing frequency. There is acid rain. There is smog and haze. There is polluted water. There are long summers and short winters. If this situation continues, what will happen to the Santa story, among other things?
For one, there will be no snow and ice at the time when he comes visiting us. There will be no cold. The clear skies will be replaced by a smoggy, dirty grey one. There might also be no reindeer left, especially Rudolph!
I take full responsibility for all this. Had my generation and the generations past been a little more considerate and careful, things would not have come to such a pass.
I don’t know whether there is still time left. But what I do know is that we can keep trying. We can reduce our greed. We can stop polluting our air, water, and land—so that our children do not have to lose out on one of the most endearing fantasies and imageries of their beautiful lives: Santa in a snow-bound landscape.
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