Folklore and fantasy themes aimed at creative writers: to start writing stories and challenge your brain with exciting ideas, dip into this kit-bag. Learn how fantasy worlds draw on real world history, mythology, and folklore. And there’s weekly news from the world of fantasy fiction too, plus fabulous creatures, studies on folk tales, nature fables and lots more mythical, magical fun.
This week I explore the origins of Father Christmas. Is he a deep folk memory of the ancient Yulefather? Are Santa Claus, Sinterklaas, Saint Nicholas of Myra, and Sir Christmas all memories of this same pagan character? How do reindeer figure in the Christmas tradition? What is Yule? What is a Yule Goat? When is the Night of Mothers? Who is Zwarte Piet? Who is Krampus? Where do the Christkindl celebrations originate? And what’s so magical about mistletoe?
Nothing awakens the interest of a young mind in the subject of MYTH and MAGIC more than the story made annually and almost made true — that is Santa Claus. The beloved character brings together religion, mythology, history, mysticism and fantasy in a way that is not only fascinating and compelling, but also legitimate. Although disconcerting and quite esoteric in nature (is he an elf? A saint? A supernatural entity? A marketing device created by shrewd business people?) everyone “gets” what Father Christmas is all about, even though they can’t put into actual words what there is to “understand” about him. That’s about as esoteric as you can get these days… it’s not often (in this rational, modernistic world) that we see an acceptance that something exists or is true, even though there’s no proof of its actual existence… beyond hope, trust and optimism that is.
I often think that it is entirely possible that in this world of humanism, science and rational thought, FATHER CHRISTMAS is the last vestige of a belief in the miraculous, paranormal and otherworldly. If it’s difficult for me ( a fantasy fiction writer) to see how this creature clearly belongs outside the material realm and yet is welcomed into our hearts, minds and even our homes at Christmastide… it must be doubly difficult for all the logically minded folk out there. Yet, they are all eagerly awaiting his arrival. He’s even tracked by the ultra high-tech North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) systems — and their Russian Aerospace equivalent GLONASS — as he journeys around the world on his mission to deliver presents to good children. And, even more amazingly, even though he’s a supernatural entity from a different space/time and dimension, he’s associated with a holy Christian festival. How did that happen?
If you have been listening to my show you perhaps won’t be surprised to know that the character we know as Father Christmas probably reaches way back in time to the Odin/Woden wandering wizard figure that I have mentioned before, in several episodes. The white beard / white hair / cape and hood and the old man’s mystical nature might have given you a clue. “Our” Father Christmas is said to be a fairy or magical being… and he is probably connected to Woden, so NORAD is probably tracking Woden in his guise as the wandering wizard of the hunt.
So where do we start? Why not start with REINDEER it’s a good a place as any!
REINDEER (also known as caribou in North America) are probably one of the oldest domesticated animals known to man (actually they’re semi domesticated). They’ve been hunted by man since before the mists of time… in fact scholars suggest they may be the single most important hunted-species on the planet. They were known to the ancient Greeks and the Romans as a vitally important hunt species. Domestication of the deer by the Arctic peoples probably started between the Bronze and Iron Ages when the animals the people lived alongside began to be herded as livestock rather than hunted as prey. The indigenous peoples employed their deer to pull sleds and raised them for meat, hides, antlers and milk. The deer were not completely domesticated though and tended to migrate between coastal and inland areas. Therefore, the herders normally traveled with their herds and lived a nomadic life.
(By the way, in modern times, during World War II, the Soviet Army used reindeer as pack animals to transport food, ammunition and post and to bring wounded soldiers, pilots and equipment back to base. About 6,000 reindeer and more than 1,000 reindeer herders were used as part of the operation.)
But back to the Arctic peoples of the iron age – try to imagine if you can… a WHITE OUT. A white-out occurs when the land, covered in crisp white snow, meets a whitewashed snow-filled skyline. Imagine if you encountered a white-out and glimpsed a team of REINDEER pulling a sled across a ridge in the middle distance. The ridge is icy white, the sky is icy white and the foreground between you and the deer-sled is icy white. The sleigh and the reindeer would appear to be “flying” across the sky. Now, imagine this vision was at night (for, in Winter time, the night-time for Arctic peoples is never-ending) and the sleigh has been adorned with twinkling lanterns or candles… what do you think that would that look to an observer?
YULE or Yuletide is an ancient midwinter festival that celebrates the WILD HUNT and is a very deep folk memory of the importance of the deer herds and celebration of the herders. It also celebrates the god Odin/Wōden [ Old Saxon : Wōdan, and Old High German: Wuotan] in his guise as wanderer/hunter and the lighting of candles in memory of female ancestors that normally took place on the “Night of Mothers” i.e. 24th December – Christmas Eve to us. Although, remember, this was before the advent of Christianity.
Odin/Wōden in his guise as winter wanderer bears the name JÓLFAÐR (YULE FATHER) and in this guise he is depicted as an old man with a white beard, wearing a cloak with a hood, and holding a magical staff. He rides a white horse across the sky.
The word YULE is still used today in Nordic countries to describe the winter holiday season.
According to the Saga of Hákon the Good written in the year 934 Yule was celebrated over three nights, starting at midwinter night. Big feasts were arranged and sacrificial blood was drunk.
In folklore the pre-Christian WILD HUNT is a motif that typically involves a ghostly or supernatural group of hunters passing-by in wild pursuit. The hunters might be elves, fairies or the dead and the leader of the hunt is often the Odin/Wōden figure. But he might be joined by the THOR character who rides across the sky in a chariot pulled by goats. The WILD HUNT is a phenomena known across cultures, for example: In Scandinavia The Ride of Asgard , in Britain, known as Woden’s Hunt, Herod’s Hunt, Cain’s Hunt, or the Devil’s Dandy Dogs (in Cornwall) Gabriel’s Hounds (in North England), and Ghost Riders in North America.
A reliable eye-witness account of the WILD HUNT from 12th century England describes it as this:
“The huntsmen were black, huge, and hideous, and rode on black horses and on black he-goats, and their hounds were jet black, with eyes like saucers, and horrible. This was seen in the very deer park of the town of Peterborough, and in all the woods that stretch from that same town to Stamford, and in the night the monks heard them sounding and winding their horns…”
By the way, The Romans considered the Odin/Wōden figure to be the same God as their “Mercury” and thew ancient Thor to be the same figure as their “Hercules”.
In processions during YULE TIDE it was a common European tradition for young, unmarried men to parade and congregate in masks to celebrate the WILD HUNT.
It’s generally agreed that the hunters of the WILD HUNT probably come from a faerie otherworld. Another dimension. Over the ages, the hunt was to led by popular characters of the time, such as Gwydion, King Arthur, King Herla, and Herne the Hunter.
If dark horsemen might move magically across a winter sky, accompanied by black ravens and war-dogs and they seemed to merge with the darkening clouds on a distant horizon, it’s easy to see how this mental image might be frightening for children… so the emblem of the WILD HUNT became replaced by something more friendly and more wholesome (for children) especially after Christianity had spread across the Northern realms (the last areas of Europe that were Christianized were the Baltic regions – and this was as late as 12th to the 14th centuries.) The idea of a gentle, warm hearted figure riding across the sky with his herd of beasts became our idea of “Father Christmas.”
But how did SAINT NICHOLAS get caught up in all this?
SAINT NICHOLAS OF MYRA was an early Christian bishop who probably lived during the mid fourth century A.D. ( Roman times) in the area we now know as Turkey. SAINT NICHOLAS had a long white beard, white hair, and wore red robes and a mitre (because he was a bishop) and because of his many miracles, he’s known (in Turkey) as Nicholas the Wonderworker. Furthermore, Saint Nicholas is the patron saint of children (among other things) and during his life he earned a reputation for secret gift-giving. It’s obvious that the early church thought that SAINT NICHOLAS OF MYRA was a perfect substitute for the ancient YULE FATHER.
In late medieval England, on Saint Nicholas Day (6 December) parishes would hold “boy bishop” celebrations. As part of these rituals, local youths would perform the functions of priests and bishops, and exercise rule over their elders. It was a good way of diverting attention from YULE and replacing it with the wholesome image of SAINT NICHOLAS OF MYRA (in his guise of Bishop of the Church.)
Today, Saint Nicholas is celebrated as a great gift-giver in several Western European and Central European countries. According to one source, in medieval times, nuns used the night of 6 December to deposit baskets of food and clothes anonymously at the doorsteps of the needy. This is probably how the custom of secret gift-giving at Christmastide came about.
When I traveled to the NETHERLANDS to visit the Christmas Markets I saw the celebrations for SINTERKLAAS. The feast is celebrated on 6th December and commemorates the patron saint of children SAINT NICHOLAS as bishop. The Dutch for St Nick is SINTERKLAAS . In the Netherlands, Sinterklaas is assisted by Zwarte Piet (aka “Black Pete”) who is one of the “companions” of SINTERKLAAS and is traditionally dressed in Moorish attire and portrayed with a blackface. It’s thought that Pete is folk memory of Saint Nicholas’ real & actual servant who has been described as “Moorish”.
Oddly, in modern day Netherlands SINTERKLAAS arrives by white horse (he doesn’t use a reindeer sleigh to get about) … but then again, the YULE FATHER character of the wild hunt rode a white horse across the sky… is this a curious throwback to a much earlier tradition?
During the Religious Reformation of the 16th- and 17th-century, in Europe, Protestant reformers such as Martin Luther changed the Saint gift-bringer SINTERKLAAS from the semi-pagan motif into the more acceptable Christ Child or Christkindl . The reformed church also moved the date of the Christkindl celebration from 6 December to Christmas Eve.
Of course, the Sinterklaas story travelled with the DUTCH migrants and took root in former Dutch colonies such as the settlement of New Amsterdam (on the tip of Manhattan Island.) The English took over the New Amsterdam settlement and renamed it New York in 1664 but the descendants of the original Dutch families continued to celebrate their SINTERKLAAS traditions along with other wintertime festivities such as Christkindl.
In the British tradition, from about the eleventh century, FATHER CHRISTMAS has been the personification of Christmas tide. In this respect he is the same thing as sinterklaas and also an entirely different thing. Confusing? Yes, I said at the outset that this mythical/magical entity was esoteric. FATHER CHRISTMAS can be considered synonymous with Santa Claus (SINTERKLAAS) because he shares a common heritage with the pre-Christian notion of the WILD HUNT. Neverthless, the church wanted to distance their devotees from pagan tradition, so their FATHER CHRISTMAS (or Sir Christmas) was presented and characterized as the personification of Chistmas. A very early English carol suggests that “Sir Christèmas” brings news of Christ’s birth as he encourages his listeners to drink: “Make good cheer and be right merry, And sing with us now joyfully: Nowell, nowell.”
In Britian the term “Yule” was comprehensievly replaced by the word “Christmas” in Britain from about the 11th century and Old Father Christmas was seen as the new symbol of the “good old days of feasting and good cheer”. During the rise of the PURITANS in the 1640s (they tried to abolish Christmas) folk held onto the belief that a Christmas Spirit in the form of Old Father Christmas would still come to them secretly to “deliver Christmas.” You can imagine how the legend stuck in the minds of people.
And in the mid 18th century Father Christmas became a stock character in Christmas folk plays known as mummers plays.
During the Victorian period Christmas customs enjoyed a big revival, and the figure of Father Christmas became an emblem of “good cheer”. It was about this time that he became associated with merchandise and shopping.
But, remember, he’s probably the wandering wizard of the ancient wild hunt. Think about that before you encourage your kids to write secret letters (prayers & wishes) to him, to stick them up the chimney… into heaven… for him to grant.
Myth and Magic News 20th December 2019
This week the BBC reported that the Cottingley Fairies hoax photo has been sold for £1,000
The famous100-year-old photo of Cottingley Fairies posed by Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths in 1917 fooled many into believing in fairy folk.
Frances confessed the photographs were a hoax in 1983 though she continued to maintain that one of the images was genuine. She admitted that she and her cousin had created the photos by making cardboard cut-outs at Cottingley, near Bradford in England.
The photo entitled “Alice and the Fairies” featuring Frances, sold for £1,050 in Cirencester. But the image “Iris and the Gnome” posed by Elsie, went unsold as the reserve price was not met.
These photographs once belonged to the Church of England Reverend George Vale Owen who claimed he received messages via a process known as automatic writing hat had been sent from spirits or psychic forces. George Vale Owen was one of the best-known spiritualists of the early-20th Century, and a friend of Sherlock Holmes creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
The photos came about after the two girls played together beside a beck (stream) at the bottom of their garden, much to their mothers’ annoyance; They frequently returned home with wet feet and muddy clothes. They came-up with the excuse they’d been to “see the fairies” and borrowed Elsie’s Dad’s camera to prove their claim. The Father developed a picture (in his own darkroom) that portrayed Frances behind a bush in the foreground, on which four fairies appeared to be dancing. Knowing his daughter was good at art & crafts he dismissed the fairy figures as cardboard cutouts.
But the photographs came public in mid-1919 when Elsie’s mother attended a meeting of the “Theosophical Society” in Bradford. The lecture was on “fairy life” and she allowed two of the fairy photographs, taken by her daughter, to be shown to the audience. The photographs were displayed at the society’s annual conference in Harrogate, a few months later. One of the central beliefs of theosophy is that humanity is undergoing a cycle of evolution, towards increasing “perfection” and the idea of spiritual and spiritual beings is not absurd to them.
The prints, along with the original glass-plate negatives, were sent to a photography expert who professed the photographs to be genuine and author and prominent spiritualist Sir Arthur Conan Doyle got involved. He sent the pictures for more tests. The results/opinions that came back were mixed but Conan Doyle remained optimistic that the girls had literally taken photos of fairies.
Magic Word of the Week – PSYCHOPOMP
Taken from the Greek (it means “guide of souls” ) psychopompós are creatures, spirits, angels, or deities whose responsibility is to escort newly deceased souls from Earth to the afterlife. Most religions have them.
In art PSYCHOPOMPS often take on anthropomorphic identities such as: horses, deer, dogs, whip-poor-wills, ravens, crows, vultures, owls, sparrows and cuckoos.
Anubis and Yama are PSYCHOPOMPS as are the Norse Valkyries.
The angel Azrael carries souls to heavens.
In many cultures a shaman fulfills the role of the psychopomp. The concept of a “midwife to the dying” cuts across most religions. A priest or minister of the sacrament plays the part in some Christian traditions.
The banshee of Irish and Scottish folklore is a psychopomp; she keens and laments before impending death then hangs around to escort the soul to the afterlife.
The psychopomp is often considered to be a mediator between the unconscious and conscious realms.
The the Grim Reaper, which I touched upon in my piece about LAMMAS [Episode 3 of Myth and Magic) is a PSYCHOPOMP figure that is familiar to us.
Fabulous Creature of the Week – The YULE GOAT
The Yule goat is a Scandinavian and Northern European Yule and Christmas symbol. Its origin may be German pagan and its thought to have has existed over many centuries. Modern representations of the Yule goat are typically made of straw.
The goat is connected to the worship of the Norse god Thor, who rode across the night sky in a chariot drawn by goats. This is a tradition that goes back to ancient Indo-European beliefs.
The last sheaf of harvest grain is sometimes bundled and specially prepared (see photo) and is credited with magical properties (as the spirit of the harvest) to be saved for the Yule celebrations. At YULE this straw goat was brought out and perhaps placed alongside a YULE LOG and called the JULBOCKEN: Yule goat
The goat is also seen, in some cultures, to be a spirit who arrives at a house before Christmastide to see that the Yule preparations are done right.
The YULE GOAT might also be a folk memory of the horned KRAMPUS. KRAMPUS (The Horned God) pre-dates Christian tradition and is strong in Alpine belief. The Krampus figure is a shaggy-haired, horned and rather demonic looking half-goat half-man who is seen holding a birch rod (or staff) with which he occasionally swats children with. He’s the figure who punishes children who might have misbehaved over the year – while Saint Nicholas rewards the good ones with gifts. In this respect, the Yule Goat is one of the malevolent companions of Saint Nicholas : these tend to be uncontrolled house spirits (kobolds or elfs) and are similar in conduct and nature to Robin Goodfellow, Knecht Ruprecht, Belsnickel, and Black Pete.
Julebukking is a Scandinavian Christmas tradition where people with masks and in JULEBOCKEN costumes (Julebukkers) go door to door Wassailing and Yulesinging. Neighbors try to identify who is hidden under the disguises. If there’s a goat in the troop, he’s normally the rascally one who performs all the pranks.
Wildflower of the Week Mistletoe
One memorable Valentine’s Day my wife and I were given a tour around the mistletoe plants (Viscum album) in the Palace gardens at Hampton Court. Once I had been shown (by the experienced gardener) where and what to look out for, I realized how much mistletoe there actually is up in the tree canopy around here! It seems, here in Surrey at least, by the River Thames, it grows everywhere. I encourage you to look up into a leafless tree at this time of the year to seek the witches’ brooms.
Mistle is probably the ancient word for twig : thus twig-toes…
Mistletoes grow on a wide range of host trees, and most people know that they are parasitic. Host trees (around here) tend to be apple, lime (linden), hawthorn and poplar.
In fact they are hemiparasites (they produce some of their own photosynthesis, at least some of the time in their leathery yellow-green leaves) and in most cases they probably have a symbiotic relationship with the host tree.
A mistletoe seed germinates on the branch of a host tree or shrub, and in the early stages of development is entirely independent of its host. The sticky, glutinous seeds are spread by birds that eat the (drupes) the mistle thrush is such a bird… though the “berries” are toxic to humans, causing a wide range of symptoms that includes blurred vision, diarrhea, nausea and vomiting.
Mistletoe plants are considered to be a keystone species with a broad array of animals depending on their fruits and leaves during winter months, consuming the leaves and young shoots, transferring pollen between plants and dispersing the sticky seeds. Thus, rather than being a pest parasite, mistletoe can have a positive effect on forest, woodland or orchard biodiversity.
In Greek mythology, a mistletoe arch (the Golden Bough) was used by heroes to access the underworld (the Elysian Fields.)
The Romans associated mistletoe with peace, love and understanding and they hung it over doorways to protect the household during the festival of Saturnalia 17-23rd December.
Before this, in the British Isles, the druids performed the ritual of oak and mistletoe. A druid priest arrayed in white vestments would climb the oak on the sixth day of the moon and, with a golden sickle, he’d cut down the mistletoe, to be caught in a white cloak. It is said that they believed that a mistletoe drink would impart fertility to any animal that was barren and could be used as an antidote to poisons.
Although mistletoe continued to be associated with fertility and vitality through the Middle Ages it also began to be used as a decoration under which lovers were expected to kiss, as well as to help householders protect themselves from witches and demons.
According to custom, mistletoe must not touch the ground between its cutting and its removal as the last of Christmas greens at Candlemas. It may remain hanging throughout the year, though, and is often allowed to do so, to preserve the house from lightning or fire, or until it is replaced the following Christmas Eve.
Mistletoe is the state floral emblem of Oklahoma and the county flower of Herefordshire. Every year, the UK town of Tenbury Wells holds a mistletoe festival and crowns a ‘Mistletoe Queen‘