Santa and Odin – Christmas and Yule
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Virginia Beach, VA, December 21, 2021 – Was Santa Claus partially inspired by Odin?
Yes we are aware that not everyone agrees with us. Some are people we actually respect and cite as sources on a regular basis. However, after looking at the long list of clear connections and similarities we offer below, we would have to simply say we agree to disagree.
First things first:
1) We are not denying the obvious influence of Saint Nicholas who gave to the poor during the 3rd century. However, Saint Nicholas never claimed to have ‘gift making elves’ or capabilities of flying through the sky. This article takes a deeper look at the interesting similarities between the ORIGINAL version of the fictitious character known as Santa Claus …and Odin of Norse mythology.
2) Few historians disagree that many of our modern holidays were created by the Christian church in an effort to replace popular pagan holidays of the past and redirect the focus to Christ. Many of today’s popular Christmas traditions (decorating trees, wreaths, mistletoe, etc) can be traced back to ancient pagan festivals: The Roman pagan festival of Saturnalia (Dec. 17th – Dec. 24th), and the more popular Germanic festival known as Yule (12 days, typically Dec. 21st – Jan. 1st). The Yule festival included the celebration of Odin’s “Wild Hunt” that involved him flying through the sky at night on his magical flying horse named Sleipnir. Evidence of this original pagan holiday can still be seen in the many popular Christmas carols that mention Yule, Yuletide, Yule log, etc. While history shows that the church replaced Yule with Christmas, many of the original Yule traditions continued through the years.
3) With the obvious connections between Yule and Christmas, it makes sense to consider how Yule (and Norse mythology in general) also speak of Norse gods flying through the sky on animal drawn sleighs. And how Odin’s flying, 8-legged horse Sleipnir was known for having a sleigh (see below). And how Odin was known for giving away gifts. And how Odin had magical elves and dwarves who were specifically known for being makers of gifts (Thor’s hammer Mjölnir being one of many examples).
Add to this the many other similarities listed below and …well, you decide.
The modern Christmas is a fusion of traditions from many cultures and has both Christian and pre-Christian elements. One of the most prevalent being Yule. To some, Yule is still considered a holy period. Like other winter solstice holidays, it celebrates the promise of light again triumphing over darkness and the rebirth of the sun. During Yule, all the gods are honored, especially Odin – who is also referred to as Jólfaðr (Yule Father).  Yule is known as a time in which family and friends would strengthen their ties to each other through hospitality, feasting, drinking, gift-giving, and making merry in the face of the privations and dangers of winter.
So, is Odin, the ‘Yule Father’, possibly an original influence to the fictitious character of Santa Claus (Father Christmas)? At first glance, the comparison seems ridiculous. What could a jolly, fat man who slips down chimneys to bring children presents possibly have to do with the one-eyed, raven-flanked Viking god of war? Upon closer examination, however, the similarities between the two become clearer.
When we look past our modern, advertisement-adjusted image of Santa Claus to more traditional images, our comparison rapidly takes shape.
Odin was known for taking on many forms and had many names. But one of his favorite forms was that of an old, white-bearded traveler clad in a cloak and broad-brimmed hat or hood.
Odin used this attire as a disguise while he traversed the nine worlds seeking knowledge [1,2,3]. This imagery of Odin was the one that any Viking would be familiar with. As for the original description of Santa. Well before Santa’s story was embellished by the Victorian sentiments of “Twas the Night Before Christmas” in 1823, and before his further reinvention by Coca-Cola during the 1920’s and 1930’s, Santa was ORIGINALLY depicted as an old, tall, gaunt man with a fur-trimmed cloak and broad-brimmed hat or hood who traveled on horseback. 
Santa / Odin comparisons include:
Odin crosses the skies during the nights of Yule, rewarding the good and punishing the bad. The Vikings and other northern European peoples believed that Odin raced across the windy night skies leading his pack of gods, elves, beasts, and ancestral spirits in a great hunt against the ice giants and the forces of darkness. This Wild Hunt, as it was often called, was linked to winter storms and even dangerous omens. While the Wild Hunt was on, those who provoked the ire of the gods could find themselves caught in bad luck and Odin’s wrath, while those whom Odin favored would receive good fortune and gifts. Though the Wild Hunt could happen any winter’s night, it was especially associated with the 12 nights of Yule.  Santa crossing the night skies of the whole world on Christmas night shares similar imagery.
- Odin was known for having a flying eight legged horse. Odin’s 8-legged flying horse is named Sleipnir (as seen in this thousand year old stone carving found in Sweden). The original Santa rode on a horse (as seen in the vintage post cards above). The concept of Santa using reindeer instead of a horse was introduced later in 1823 through the poem, ‘A Visit from St. Nicholas’ (aka ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas’). When going to war, Odin rode on Sleipnir’s back. And while the other Norse gods were known for having chariots that were drawn by magical flying beasts (like Thor’s goats or Freya’s cats), the Eddic poem, Sigdrifumal, mentions Sleipnir having runes cut into his teeth and onto the straps of his sleigh, which shows that the magical flying horse also (at least at times) pulled a sleigh. In snowy Scandinavia, animal drawn chariots were replaced by animal drawn sleighs. Three such sleighs were found in the famous Viking Oseberg ship burial. By the time the fictitious character of Santa was first being created, reindeer were well-known as sleigh pulling animals in Finland and other cold lands bordering the Northern Scandinavian realms of the Viking homeland.  Many writers make the further connection to old Nordic stories of children leaving straw and carrots in their boots as a gift for a hungry Sleipnir fresh from the Wild Hunt. In exchange, they would find their boots filled with gifts in the morning. This is thought to be the origin of modern treats for Santa and his reindeer in exchange for gift-stuffed (boot shaped) stockings by the fireplace. However, we have yet to find any primary sources on this.
- Odin was a Gift-Giver. Norse myth has many instances of Odin giving gifts to humankind. In addition to creating the world and giving people life (and other things one might expect of a god), Odin would sometimes show up and provide a worthy person with some special item they needed. For example, in the Volsunga Saga, Odin arrives in his now-familiar disguise to give the hero, Sigmund, the gift of a magic sword.  In the Saga of Hrolf Kraki (Hrolf the Tall), King Hrolf refuses a gift of hospitality, armor and weapons from an old, bearded man with a missing eye – only to later realize the gift-giver was Odin in disguise. Hrolf later dies as a result of not having these weapons. One of the many names for Odin was Óski (Wish Granter).
In the Eddic poem, Voluspa en skamma, Freyja elaborates on Odin as gift-giver:
“We’ll ask Odin
to keep us in mind
he gives gold to those who are worthy.
He gave Hermoth a helmet and armor.
He gave Sigmund a sword as a gift.
He gives victory to some,
money to others,
eloquence to many,
and common sense to all.
He gives waves to the sea,
word-skill to poets,
he gives many the happiness of love”
- Gift making elves were referred to as ‘Odin’s men’. The dwarfs and elves of Norse mythology were specifically known to be the creators of wondrous things, such as Odin’s magical spear (Gungnir), Thor’s magical hammer (Mjolnir) and many other known gifts. Though Alfheim, the realm of the Elves, was later gifted to the god Freyr, the Elves always have had a special alliance with Odin. The Eddic poem, Thorsdrapa (Lay of Thor) originally referred to the Elves as “Odin’s Men” .
- The Norse believed that Odin knew if they were bad or good. Odin was considered the far-seeing, all-knowing god of Norse mythology. He sent out his two ravens, Huginn and Muninn every morning to collect news from the Nine Worlds, and every night these supernatural birds would report back to him. Odin would walk the earth, searching for wisdom and knowledge and checking in on people that he favored as well as people that he distrusted. Odin was also the “Chooser of the Slain,” who – along with Freya – chose who judged the worthiness of people to take a place in Valhalla. [1,2,3]
- Santa lives in the North Pole. Odin is said to live in a supernatural world called Asgard, a realm removed from our reality and only accessible by crossing the Bifrost bridge or ascending the trunk of Yggdrasil. Odin often battles against the ice giants (or frost giants). In comparison, a good portion of Scandinavia is inside of the Arctic Circle – uninhabited frozen places in which life is nearly impossible. The early people of Scandinavia naturally equated those Northern mountainous, inhospitable regions of the midnight sun and the northern lights as a place of magic and the ‘land of the gods and giants.’ And of course, Vikings were commonly known as “The Northmen” to the rest of the world at that time.
- Santa was originally called Father Christmas. One of Odin’s most popular titles is that of the word Allfather.  As previously mentioned, he is also called Jólfaðr (Yule Father). 
Folklorist Margaret Baker stated the following,
“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. … Odin, [over time] transformed into Father Christmas, then Santa Claus, prospered with St Nicholas and the Christchild, and became a leading player on the Christmas stage.” 
Consider what Santa Claus would have meant to our earlier ancestors. Santa symbolized facing hardship (for winter is a time of great hardship in agrarian societies) with protection, abundance, generosity, and joy. These same qualities were also inherent in the writings of Odin, who was not merely the god of war, but also of poetry and wisdom, and the embodiment of gift giving and heroic stoicism.
Santa Claus is a complex cultural-conglomerated character. He has many evolving points of origin – Scandinavian and Germanic myth, Saint Nicholas of the third-century Eastern Roman Empire, Medieval and later folk forms like Sinterklaas and other regional variations, Victorian poems and etchings, even the Coca Cola ads of the 1930s and all the other pop-culture since then.
Other Christmas connections to Yule
• Mistletoe. Loki, the god of mischief and misfortune, masterminded the murder of Baldr (who was one of the most beloved of the gods) with a spear made from mistletoe. The Mistletoe berries later became a symbol of love in the epilogue of the same story, hence the tradition of kissing under it; Baldr’s death was also supposed to lead to rebirth after Ragnarok, in keeping with the theme of Yule. 
• Christmas trees. Vikings decorated trees with food, gifts, and small carvings (particularly in honor of their gods). The tradition of lighting candles on trees was not documented until the early 19th century, and so we can hope that the ever-practical Vikings had better sense than that.
• Carols and Caroling. Though they were almost certainly of a very different character than our Christmas carols, the Norse sang Yule carols. Nordic children would wear masks and go door-to-door among their neighbors singing carols. 
• Nights of magic, magical creatures, and holiday miracles. Vikings believed that the time around Yule was magical, especially at night. As in Celtic Samhain, the barrier between our world and the supernatural world was at its thinnest. Spirits could travel the forests and fields. Elves, dwarves, and other beings were active and could become involved in the affairs of humans. These various spirits and beings could sometimes bring blessings or justice to humans who needed it, and who showed them their due respect. [6,10] Our Christmas imagery of nocturnal magic such as in The Nutcracker, or the spiritual journeys of Ebenezer Scrooge are stories from much later times, but their feeling and themes would have been perfectly familiar to the Vikings.
• Gifts of cakes and sweets. These items were offered to the fates (Norns) and mother (fertility and nurturing) forces that probably originated with older Indo-European cults, but suffused the Aesir Goddesses of the Viking Age (such as Freya and Frigg). 
• Veneration of goddesses. To many Christians, Mary is an especially important Christmas character, and often receives special attention. The Vikings were the same regarding their emphasis of the female deities and the celebration of deity motherhood around Yule. 
• Wreaths. One Yule tradition involved making large wheels of pine boughs, lighting them on fire, and rolling them down a hill in honor of the sun. The round shape of wreaths also depicted the cyclical nature of the seasons and of the Norse conception of the cosmos/time. 
• Yule Logs. At the Yule feast, Vikings would burn large logs of oak inscribed with runes for good fortune in the coming year. Oak is the hardest of woods, and so these logs would burn long and hot throughout the night to gladden the feast and to chase the darkness away.
• Drinking. Christmas and New Year are the main times of year that conspicuous drinking of alcohol becomes more socially acceptable. The Vikings celebrated Yule with nights-on-end of drinking mead and specially-brewed ales from animal horns (and sometimes the skulls of their enemies).
Holidays are times when the traditions of our many ancestors come down to us in blended forms. Despite its diverse points of origins, Christmas is still a time in which people brave the cold to come together, strengthening the bonds of kinship and friendship, think of their past and their future, and consider their spiritual place in the world.
Images and original post can be found here:
- McCoy, D. The Viking Spirit: An Introduction to Norse Mythology and Religion.2016 https://norse-mythology.org/viking-spirit-introduction-norse-mythology-religion/
- Crawford, J. The Poetic Edda: Stories of Norse Gods and Heroes. Hackett Classics. Indianapolis, Indiana. 2015.
- Crawford, J. The Saga of the Volsungs with the Saga of Ragnar Lothbrock. Hackett Classics. Indianapolis, Indiana. 2017.
- Foltz, J.S.S. Beasts from the East and Magical Monarchs: The Connection between Sweden, Swedes, and the Supernatural in the Saga Corpus. University of Oslo. 2019. https://www.duo.uio.no/bitstream/handle/10852/70122/UiO-Thesis-.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y
- Image Gallery of Vintage Santa Claus https://www.pinterest.com/laurarcaballero/vintage-santa-postcards-images/
- Guerber, H.A. Myths of the Norsemen from the Eddas and Sagas. London. 1909. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/28497/28497-h/28497-h.htm
- Wigington, P. The Origins of Santa Clause. ThoughtCo. December 11, 2017. https://www.thoughtco.com/the-origins-of-santa-claus-2562993
- The Sleighs. UiO: Museum of Cultural History. https://www.khm.uio.no/english/visit-us/viking-ship-museum/exhibitions/oseberg/sleighs.html
- Reindeer husbandry. http://www.barentsinfo.org/Contents/Economy-and-Business/Reindeer-husbandry
- Kvilhaug, M. The Old Norse Yule Celebration. Lady of the Labyrinth. December, 2012. http://freya.theladyofthelabyrinth.com/?page_id=397
- Vinje, J. G. Don’t Take Odin Out of Yule. The Norwegian American. December 19, 2014. http://www.norwegianamerican.com/featured/dont-take-odin-out-of-yule/
- McCoy, D. The Death of Baldur. Norse Mythology for Smart People. https://norse-mythology.org/tales/the-death-of-baldur/
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